Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Green Kitchen: The Cheap Healthy Good Guide to CSAs

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

One of my favorite things about shopping at a farmers market – if talking about this with snow in the forecast and sprouting onions lingering in the greenmarket bins – is the adventure of it. Yes, I sound bananas, but hear me out. I don't shop at the farmers market with an unlimited budget. So every week – in season, I mean, and can it please hurry up in coming – I buy what's cheap. That's often not one of the three vegetables I learned to cook growing up. So I buy things and learn how to cook them. And there are some crazy things at the farmers market. (Love you, three-foot-long green beans!)

From Erin.kkr
So I guess it makes sense that the main appeal of a CSA to me is the challenge. A box of mystery vegetables every week? Bring it on!

But there are plenty of other reasons to take your relationship with local vegetables to the next level, and maybe some reasons not to. But before we get to that...

What Is a CSA?

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. When you join a CSA, you purchase a “share” of a farm's output. You pay up front for the season, usually June to October or so, and then every week of the season you pick up a boxful of vegetables. Whatever's fresh and bountiful that week? That's what you take home.

CSAs are generally just vegetables, but some include fruit. Others allow you to add on a fruit, dairy, egg, or even honey share.

Why Join a CSA?

Lots of reasons!

Oh, you want to know what they are? I'll throw it over to Just Food, an awesome NYC organization that works to connect city residents to local farms.
Buy Local
Your support helps small local farms stay afloat.
Connect with the food you eat by meeting your farmers and exploring the farms.

Eat Well
Buy the freshest food for your family.
Explore new foods and learn to cook with them.
Find out that beet greens aren’t just good for you, they’re tasty too!

Be Healthy
Eat more fresh vegetables and fruit.
Share healthy eating habits with your kids. Expose them early to a variety of regional produce.

Protect the Environment
Support farmers who take care of their land by growing food in ways that take care of the soil.
Cut down on the number of miles your food travels from the farm to your plate.
Thanks, Just Food! But then, on the other hand...

Why Might a CSA Not Be Your Best Choice?

CSAs aren't for everyone. First of all, they include some financial risk. You don't pay per pound of produce, but rather invest in the farm at the beginning of the season. If the farm has an awesome summer, you get an overflowing crisper drawer. But if weather doesn't go right, or pests are a problem, you share the burden of the farm's meager year.

From Bill.Roehl
What if, one week, you come home with a CSA box with four bunches of kale and an onion. Can you work with that? CSAs are awesome for adventurous cooks. Maybe not so much for families with picky eaters? Spring brings piles and piles of lettuce; a week in fall may yield nothing but potatoes. You can supplement your haul with greenmarket (or supermarket) buys, but that can get pricey. If trying out new (or strange) vegetables won't be fun, or at least pleasant, you might want to stick to keeping your own shopping list.

Do you have friends or neighbors who might be willing to take excess veggies off your hands? Cause you might end up with a lot of kale.

How to Find a CSA

Okay, you've weighed the pros and cons, and you're up for a summer adventure. You want to get to know your farmer. You're ready to take on a small share of his or her financial risk. Now what?

Head over to Local Harvest and do a search by zip code or state. Read about the options in your area. Compare prices, pick-up times, requirements for helping at distribution or (and I will be jealous) on the farm. Some CSAs will even tell you what was in last year's shares. Past performance is no guarantee of future etc etc, but here's 2010 for my nearby Inwood CSA. (Blast them and their Thursday afternoon distribution!)

Readers, are any of you CSA members? Do you love teaming up with a farmer, or do you get overwhelmed with corn (or lack thereof)?

(If anyone joins a CSA this summer, just let me know if you have more kale than you can use.)


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Karis said...

I became a CSA member last year for the first time and loved the experience!! I found the farm through Local Harvest and would highly recommend High Cross Farm, if you're in the Milwaukee, WI area. I think the mystery of each week's box is fun, but I also rely on a nearby farm stand to supplement if I don't get something specific I want for a recipe.

esther said...

I loved being a part of a CSA but I totally agree with the pros and cons listed. I lovvveeed the fresh produce and everything tasted so delicious! And I got to experiment with a lot of vegetables I wouldn't buy otherwise. I actually wrote about it here: http://www.ambitiousdeliciousness.com/2009/12/14/thoughts-on-my-csa-share/

On the other hand, I did a half share and it was hard to figure out how to use 3 bulbs of radish since we split everything in half. It was a huge time commitment to go there every single week on the same day!

Nicole Dyan said...

I just joined a "CSA" in February. Mine is a little different, as it is a farm that sells organic produce to Whole Foods and other markets, and offers boxes of extra yields delivered on a per box basis. There is no long term commitment, but they do deliver at regular intervals unless you tell them to stop. I get a box of fruits and veggies every three weeks and love it so far. It makes us eat things I wouldn't normally buy, and find new dishes to make. The service I use even has a website where you can opt out of certain items that you don't want (i.e. Beau does not eat cilantro so I made sure we don't get that in our box). The only negative I've come across is that I am super short on fridge space during the first few days after a delivery with all of the leafy greens.

This, combined with a weekly farmers market less than a block from my house has drastically cut the amount of produce I buy at the regular supermarket, but bananas are a must!

Dee Seiffer said...

Signed up for a half share CSA (there is just two of us) from the farm around the corner from me. They are also garden center, so I usually buy my vegetable plants from them and grow a lot of my own. I still buy from them what I don't grow.

The boxes of veges looked so good last year I decided to sign up for the CSA instead of planting this year.

Paula @ AffordAnything.org said...

I prefer to grow my own veggies and therefore decide what I'm going to plant, and what kind of harvest I'm going to have. (I'm more likely to eat certain veggies and less likely to eat others.) Nonetheless, I think this could be a good idea for others.

Kristy said...

I also recently blogged about my experience with a vegetable delivery service... almost CSA but not quite. I loved it, I decided to opt out and frequent my farmer's market more while I build up my garden's ability to feed my family. You did a great job at exploring the pros and cons.

Autumn said...

I really enjoy our CSA, but it does take some effort and creativity to use up the veggies before they go funky. Ours focuses on heirloom varieties of veggies in amounts that are good for a small family, so I'm never totally overwhelmed with one thing, but sometimes I'm looking at radishes, beets, basil, and bok choy and that doesn't sound good together.

It keeps me on my culinary toes. And I get zucchini the size of wine bottles. . .

EBRoe said...

What funny timing, the same day this article posts, my cousin sent out info on her CSA. She runs a CSA in Burlington, VT and unfortunately, I live about 12 hours south (too far to join!). If anyone is interested in the Burlington area, check out her site www.samara-csa.com.

courtney said...

I joined a CSA last year (and will again this year!) in Corvallis, OR - Denison Farms if anyone is nearby!

I absolutely loved it - I've been vegetarian for 13 years but it forced me to really start cooking with a lot of different kinds of vegetables, many that I had never tried before.

It is definitely a time commitment though - I found it difficult to use everything up if I didn't cook at home every single night. This year I am going to try to be better about prepping and freezing (or maybe canning?) and ingredients I know I won't get to in time!

Golda said...

We joined a CSA for the first time last year and loved it. We had a "work share" where we worked four hours on the farm each week in exchange for a half share of veggies. It was fun, but this year we're going to go the traditional route and pay for half share.

Last year we ended up with a ton of summer squash and basil. We could barely keep up with the basil! Not complaining though, I love pesto!

Jenny Sunshine said...

I loved doing a CSA last summer (and signed up again this year with my parents)- I wouldn't normally buy all the variety that we got from our basket each week- it forced us to try different things and definitely each your vegies - I still plant tomatoes, peppers and herbs because I can't every have enough of those!

Christina Tazelaar said...

Just rejoined a CSA after a year-off. When we did it before, we were overflowing with kale! But as I have now been bookmarking kale recipes for the last 2 years, I have higher hopes for using it this time around. Overall loved it, though, and this time we'll be making more soup stock and freezing/blanching to make better use of all the veg we get.

Brenda Pike said...

I love my CSA. But I'm actually glad it doesn't last through the winter. It can get exhausting to come up with meals for all the random veggies each week!

Johanna said...

I love going to farmers markets, but I've never heard of CSA. I've been a vegetarian for a few years and it sounds like this would be a great way to try new vegetables that I don't usually cook with. I'm going to look into joining and hopefully I'll be able to afford it! A mystery box of veggies definitely seems interesting and fun.

elaines630 said...

I pick up my first box next Thursday. I'm beyond excited!

Jessica Kathren said...

Check with your insurance company to see if CSA rebates are available! We get $200 back for our CSA share.

Angela said...

I absolutely love our CSA, called Full Circle Farm in Washington. Each week, there is a default list of items that will be sent, but I can select/swap what's in the box if I want all online, it's delivered to our doorstep. They're a little different in that they will source produce from California to make sure the boxes are filled every week (or every other week, depending on the member's delivery schedule), so the risk is much less than a traditional type of CSA.

Having fresh organic produce delivered to our doorstep is just fantastic! Much like other readers, having new veggies that I wouldn't have ordinarily tried otherwise has really expanded our horizons...I can't say enough about how great it is to participate with a CSA!