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Meet Sara Hale of Fair Shares

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sara Hale.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
My sister Jamie Choler and I started Fair Shares in 2008 after having run a bath and body care business together for a number of years. My trips to Italy for Slow Food’s first and second Terra Madre events in 2004 and 2006 began our participation in and eventual running of Slow Food St. Louis. This and sharing a CSA share from Biver Farms developed our relationships with local farmers, and the seed–ahem–was planted.

We’re much more passionate about the benefits of eating local food and supporting small, local farms than we are about bath and body care products. When the idea struck to form a CSA that would incorporate a variety of great food from the farmers at Maplewood Farmers’ Market, where we collected our weekly CSA bag, we took a leap. Quickly realizing that we would need help, we hired our sister, Lindy Sullivan, who still works with us today. My husband Stephen Hale, our first and only INvolunteer delivers the shares to our UCity pickup group, which is managed entirely by member volunteers who devote their time every Wednesday afternoon. We rely on an incredible group of volunteers at our main site (The Mothership) as well as our Kirkwood pickup location.

We’ve developed and refined the system over the years and are proud of our amazing membership of families who pick up weekly or bi-weekly from us. Over 30 of these families have been with us from the first year, and around 70 have been in for at least ten years. We know their children and have watched their families grow over the years. They trust us with their food and we don’t take that lightly. We love to educate members about seasonal eating and what “organic produce” really looks like, and they understand that our mission is to help the small local farmers as well as to eat delicious, super fresh food.

The pandemic doubled our membership to over 500 members and we stepped up to the challenge, completely converting our distribution to pre-packed bags for curbside pickup. Thanks to a core group of phenomenal staff and volunteers, we’ve fine-tuned the system. We’re constantly working on ways to improve efficiencies and grow the numbers–both for our members and for the weekly produce and egg shares we provide for a local non-profit–so that we can increase our purchases from farmers throughout the year.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
No point has been particularly smooth, and as soon as it starts getting in a groove, we change things up and make it difficult again!

At the start, our learning curve was enormous. The days were 14 to 16 hours (or more), and it felt like all we did was apologize to members for mess ups. We worked seven days a week and were exhausted. Things started falling into place over the second year. We learned how to order from farmers, how to weigh and count more efficiently, how to gauge volume and pack coolers, how to explain the program to new members, how to take members’ money, and myriad other little things that now seem like common sense, but back then, we were overwhelmed. By year three, we increased membership and added a pickup day to the week, thereby creating a whole new set of challenges to overcome.

Two more years brought more stability and then another change–a new pickup location and a new website with a new, complex member accounting and payment system. We committed to a new pickup location that had a walk-in cooler that would allow us to expand the membership again. But about that time, other companies had caught on to the local food scene and the idea of a Combined CSA (or CCSA, a term we coined when we started in 2008). Suddenly the waiting list we’d had since year one dwindled to nothing, and about a third of our members over the next year or two trickled away, choosing to try out other options (more than 40 members have returned over the years, and it always makes us happy to see familiar names and faces).

One challenge we’ve really struggled with was the not-so-honest practice of “greenwashing” that some of our larger “competitors” practiced. That is, they may order some product from local farmers and then promote that they support and sell local, but after the first few orders, they stop buying from these small, local farmers (this is according to our farmers), yet they never change their story that they promote local. The customers who think they are supporting local farms are being fooled, but how do we call these businesses out? The farmers don’t want to say anything because they are still hoping to sell their goods to these places in the future. Most of the local food writers and magazines won’t do it because it’s often these bigger businesses who advertise in their publications. We never figured that one out. Maybe these places will read this and start ordering from our local farmers again!

We snaked by with lower than needed membership over a couple of years and then received a USDA grant. We created a new Delivery to the Workplace program, which helped but never really proved financially viable. Then, half of our staff moved on. It was a blessing for our finances but incredibly difficult with the workload going back to three people, and we couldn’t afford to hire anyone. We also made a transition to a new software system that summer and the learning curve, plus increased hours being short staffed made it feel like Season One all over again. Eventually, we found a great group of volunteers who really helped us pull it all back together.

Then the pandemic hit and we reinvented the wheel to incorporate only pre-ordering, pre-packing bags and curbside pickups…in the midst of getting a new website which required a lot of attention to make sure we included all the info new members need…while our membership exploded, eventually doubling in 2020. The growing income allowed us to hire fantastic staff and we’re running quite smoothly now, but as everything opens up, we worry about losing lots of members who will return to the grocery stores. The biggest concern is that we won’t be able to purchase everything from our farmers, who have jumped through major hoops to increase production for accommodating our increased membership.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
We offer a customizable CSA with a full range of groceries, from protein to dairy, to grains, condiments, canned goods, prepared foods, nut butters, sweets, fresh produce and more. We work with a number of small, local, certified-organic and non-organic farmers to offer an extensive variety of produce, giving us incredible diversity compared to traditional, single-farm CSAs.

Our weekly shares include a rotating variety of staples with an evolving seasonal produce list. Members have the option of swapping the non-produce items to suit their specific diets and preferences. The produce is our commitment to the farmers, so that is not tradable, but we always try to offer more produce in the online store for additional orders.

This system accommodates vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, keto and other diets with the ability to trade out non-produce items.

What makes you happy?
Sara: I was originally thinking of saying Prosecco because it gives us something to look forward to, and it means the workday is over.

Really though, what makes me happy is sharing the joy of seasonal eating with our members because it gives us all something to look forward to, even as we are getting our fill of the outgoing produce.

Jamie: It makes me happy that we are helping to combat the poor nutritional value of food and improve the life of farm animals by sourcing foods that have a higher standard and quality than industrial foods. We are helping to pay more of a living wage to farmers by respecting the work that goes into growing our food.

It makes me happy to work with my family, too. My six-year-old granddaughter Fiona is thrilled we started Fair Shares. We are educating so many young people to know good food and know your people and community.

Pricing:

  • Full Shares (Weekly): $55.32 w/tax
  • Half Shares (Bi-weekly): $59.58 w/tax
  • Mini Shares (Weekly): $38.30 w/tax
  • Two-week trials available
  • $50 one-time Membership Fee and Pre-paid credit with a variety of payment plans upon joining.

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