Special Delivery: CSAs

Sharon Palmer

CSAs give new meaning to the words fresh, local, seasonal, and delicious.

Imagine a box stuffed with fresh produce, delivered to your home or a local hot spot. Your eyes first catch the fuzzy-skinned peaches perfect for your classic peach pie. And the aromatic flesh of the ripe, green honeydew melons tempts you to make a perfect sorbet. And then you spy shiny, firm, bell peppers which will surely make your famous stuffed peppers pop with a certain je ne se quoi. As an added bonus, the box of produce can be traced to a specific farm in your community. While many of us don’t think past the aisle when we make a dash to the supermarket, it’s something we should spend more time pondering for the health of our food system. Fortunately, you don’t need to live on a farm to be able to get local food from farmers, and know exactly where your food comes from.

Local farmers markets offer a means to provide fresh local produce, while allowing you to support your local farm community. But what if you can’t make it to a farmer’s market at their set time and place? Sure, they’re fun to visit, but they aren’t always convenient. Consider this alternative: Rather than go to the farmers market, the farmers market comes to you; they deliver the crops they harvest to your front door or nearby pickup location, through what is known as community supported agriculture, or CSAs (sometimes called community shared agriculture, as well.) This means instead of hunting down those locally grown juicy scarlet strawberries or that crisp organic spinach, these bad boys are already home, waiting for you to turn them into your dinner salad.

How it Works. Farmers run and operate CSA programs through their farms, and members of the CSA pay for a share of produce they receive on a routine basis, typically weekly or bimonthly. This provides farmers with the financial support needed in these harsh economic times, as the farming occupation has become practically obsolete, at about 2% of the US population.

Many farms provide newsletters with their CSA packages, which offer ideas for experimenting with new foods and recipes. The specific produce CSA members receive is relative to the seasons and growing conditions, which makes the foods taste their best and cost the least.

Why Stay Local? Let’s brush up on the benefits of local food for a moment. First off, locally grown food is fresher, so it tastes better. The locally grown fruits and vegetables are allowed to ripen, as opposed to commercial methods which means produce is picked immature to survive the harsh voyage of the shipping process. So, often times, the produce sold in super markets have not been given the appropriate time to ripen and therefore allow the food’s nutrients to be at their peak value.

Local and organic food is most preferable, but if forced to chose, you might opt to consider local over organic. Frequently, the organic produce that we find in our local supermarkets has traveled cross-country or cross-continentally, and the environmental damage done greatly dwarfs the benefit of buying organic to begin with. Local eating is simply better for the environment. Consider a CSA as a way to “go green”.

Expanding Your Horizons. The surprise factor of the CSA is fun. Your box arrives and you can’t wait to see what they sent you; it’s like receiving a present from your local farmer! This may be challenging at first, because you don’t have the control of always being able to plan weekly meals in advance.  But it’s exciting to be given the ingredients and then make use of them and design your menu. Think of it like a cooking show challenge! What delicious meals can you design with these new ingredients given to you? It stretches you out of your comfort zone to try new things you may have never tried, from fresh dill to rhubarb.

With a large volume of produce arriving all at once, it means you may even practice how to preserve items, such as through canning, freezing and drying, if it is more than you can eat at one time.  You also can share with others and introduce them to the idea of CSAs. After all, there are still many people who do not know about CSAs. The concept isn’t entirely new, though its popularity has increased in recent years in the US. Although we first started seeing CSAs beginning here in the 1980s, the concept stemmed from Switzerland and Japan in the 1960s, where consumers who wanted safe foods decided to partner with farmers who wanted a stable market for their crops. Hundreds of CSAs exist today, many in the east coast but popularity is rising in the west coast. In California—especially Southern California—the seasons and harvests last longer, making more foods available to us year round.

Convenience is Key. Many CSAs will offer pick up sites as an alternative to home delivery, often at a slightly lower cost to members. Signing up for a CSA is easy.  A great starting place is www.localharvest.org/csa , where over 5 million people a year currently get local food from their community.  Next, check out the website for CSA Aware at www.csaaware.com to see how CSA’s can be even more convenient, personalized, and flexible. If you want a specific item to arrive a week later, your farm can adjust that for you.

For plant-based recipes perfect for featuring CSA produce, check out the following:

Pear Fennel Salad with Arugula
Roasted Chicory with Pistachios and Pomegranates
Golden Beets and Red Chard with White Beans

Written by Ladan Tehrani with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN August 14, 2013; Updated on July 17, 2019.

Image: produce at a local farmers market, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

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