If you are like many families, you may have heard about CSAs but have a lot of questions about whether one might be right for your family. CSA is an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture where a local farm or farm collective is financially supported by members and in return supplies members with "shares" of fresh produce on a weekly basis. Members usually join annually and receive the bounty of their membership throughout the year or just the growing season (May-November here in Northern Jersey). Some CSAs supplement their harvest with fresh items like artisan cheese, homemade bread, and pastured eggs. Other CSAs ask for volunteers or workshares to help out the farmer and reduce member fees. All CSAs enable your family to not only get access to amazing, just-picked, seasonal crops but also support local farmers by ensuring their season is funded before the growing season. It's a win-win for your family and the farmer!
Around this time every year, I start to get the itch for our first CSA delivery. Mostly because It is the exact opposite from shopping at the grocery store. The season dictates what will arrive in each box and then I, the member, must manage what surprises wait for me in that big cardboard box by finding interesting recipes to prepare my vegetables and herbs and smart ways to prioritize and store the goods. Refrigeration and the advent of the mega grocery store model have completely upended the whole meal planning process so that we are no longer required to heed the call of a local, seasonal harvest. Rather we are often planning our meals and shopping lists regardless of what season it is or where and how the produce is grown! A CSA membership encourages us to eat what's being harvested that day and see vegetables for the dirt-covered, lumpy, misshapen beauties they actually are (not the perfectly-shaped, tasteless curiosities that were harvested last week and traveled thousands of miles to get to our local mega-mart).
In other words, a CSA allows us to truly appreciate nature's bounty. Once you pop a few little, watery strawberries from a local, organic CSA in your mouth and feel the taste just explode...I think you'll completely agree!
Here's why my family loves belonging to a CSA:
1. CSAs provide fresher, more nourishing produce
Farmers that produce crops for local rather than mass consumption and travel can choose varieties higher in quality and nutritional content than those that must travel thousands of miles and days before being consumed. In addition, when a farmer is able to pick the fruit or vegetable ripe from the plant rather than allowing it to ripen after picking, more nutrients become available. In addition, organic and bio-dynamic pest management systems also enable produce to absorb more minerals from the soil. Films, coatings, packaging - and especially irradiation - are not necessary for CSA produce to get delivered in tact to members so the produce does not deteriorate at all on its journey. One bite of a butter lettuce leaf freshly picked from a CSA and you can taste what an incredible difference this makes.
And sometimes this food can also be safer as it comes from one farm or farm collective that is accountable to its members and has practices about which you as a member can learn and feel good.
2. CSAs expose us to new foods
I can't tell you how confused we were the first time kohlrabi arrived in our CSA box. This bizarre, sputnik-shaped veggie sat on my counter without explanation. Luckily, my CSA had kindly posted many recipes on their site and after trying my hand at a yummy chicken casserole featuring roasted kohlrabi, the kiddos now get excited when that vegetable that looks like a satellite pops up. I also remember the time my then kindergartner took squares of yellow watermelon in her lunchbox and her unknowing teacher kindly explained to her how, dear, that was indeed cantaloupe. Inviting new foods into our every day lives can be tough with young (and old) picky eaters but being forced to figure out creative ways to serve these interesting new delicacies is fun and gives kids an active and appreciated role in what they eat and how they eat it. When in doubt... I can always hide it in a soup, sauce or salsa!
3. CSAs save us money
Contrary to what you might think, CSAs are usually a good deal! Because of the pay-ahead, direct sale model, the farmer doesn't need to up-charge for a middle man or for advertising and you will definitely save money compared to buying the same produce organically at a farmer's market or grocery store. In addition, getting all those veggies delivered weekly encourages smarter meal planning (and less eating out!). The caveat is that a bad growing season for the farmer will obviously lessen your yield. I do recall one summer when an unexpected hail storm completely canceled out most of the tomato harvest. We were sad... but so was our farmer. In other years like this one, the mild winter is bringing us an earlier harvest!
4. CSAs connect our family directly with farms and farmers
As CSA members we are invited to visit the farm on certain days and to pick-your-own fests for larger crops. We get to observe farm life firsthand, develop a relationship with the growers of our food and see what goes into bringing a crop from seed to harvest. Somehow not only does this make us more appreciative for our dinner but it also tastes better! We have the harvest calendar pinned up so we can see what should be coming soon and leaving us until next year. And our farmer's email updates keep us informed as to the goings-on at the farm from new crops being planted to protecting greens from unexpected weather to new staff (and farm dogs) and workshops. Many who have the opportunity to volunteer or workshare through their CSA gain an even deeper relationship with their farm.
5. CSAs offer the element of surprise!
Being a major planner, our CSA box integrates itself just nicely with my OCD-like weekly meal planning, shopping trip and prep day. However... one can never anticipate produce switch-outs, an extra six eggplants or a sudden opportunity to come down to the farm and pick some blueberries. We might open our magical mystery box and be surprised by a bouquet of wildflowers or fresh herbs or new potatoes or five big leafy bunches of kale, spinach and chard. It's exciting and brings out even more creativity in my cooking. Expecting the unexpected can really get you out of those inevitable cooking and eating ruts. I've also gotten to learn how to put foods by, a.k.a. freezing and canning. And our juicer always comes in handy in July and August when things start to get out of hand!
- Frith, Kathleen. "Is Local More Nutritious?" Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Health and the Global Environment, Web. Accessed May 1, 2016.