Support a Farmer, Support the Planet: Your Guide to CSA
BY LIZ CARLISLE
We love our urban farmers markets—and we’re always looking for better ways to eat in and near the city. What if we told you there’s a way to combine the two, in one helpful, hearty swoop? It’s called a CSA, and our beginner’s guide can get you started ASAP.
WHAT IS A CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and its goal is to give citizens a more active role in the food system. When you join a CSA, you become a “shareholder” in a farm or group of farms. Think of it like a farm subscription or a membership. You pay the farmer at the beginning of the membership period (ideally a whole season, although many CSAs offer quarterly or monthly options), and then you get a box of fresh, seasonal produce on a regular schedule—usually once a week. Boxes are typically delivered to neighborhood drop-off points, although some CSAs offer home delivery.
Fresh, Seasonal Produce With CSA, your food comes straight from the farm, so it’s both fresh (often picked that day) and seasonal.
Low Costs CSA cuts out some of the transaction costs and uncertainty associated with retail food marketing, so the price per pound of produce is typically much cheaper than at the farmers market.
Diet Diversification Each week’s box invites creativity, and most CSAs provide newsletters with recipes. Before you know it, you’ll be stir-frying beet greens, quick-pickling radish, and adding spicy mustard greens to your salads.
Farmer Support When you pay a farmer at the beginning of the season and allow them to supply you with seasonal, ecologically appropriate crops, you support them in taking better care of their land (and, thus, the earth). Up-front payment allows farmers to invest in infrastructure and cover their seeding and management costs without going into debt. This way, farmers don’t have to take out loans to hold out until their big harvest season in late summer.
Clearer Food Origins CSAs nearly always come with a newsletter, which will fill you in on what’s going on at the farm. You’ll learn that some of the items in your box are drought tolerant, while others are good rotation crops that break pest and disease cycles. CSA farmers also share helpful tips about storing produce, and of course, how to cook it.
More Free Time Picking up your produce in one weekly box is a great way to simplify your life. Keep a healthy supply of grains and beans on hand and you can skip the grocery store line for weeks!
Search for a CSA in your area on the Local Harvest website. Each CSA is a little different, so read up and find one that’s a fit for you. Do they have a drop-off point near your home or office? Is the approximate amount of produce the right volume for you and your family? Pro tip: Many CSAs offer a half-box option, which can be a good way to start out.
Finding and signing up for the right CSA is a great first step. Here’s where to go from there.
Plan Some Time For Cooking You’ll enjoy your CSA most if you make time to cook at least once a week. Whip up a large stew or casserole the day you get your box and enjoy leftovers for the rest of the week. Or, if you have more time to cook, parcel out the veggies one night at a time and relish the variety of your meals. If you’re traveling, many CSAs allow you to skip or donate your box, so your veggies won’t go to waste.
Get To Know Your Farmer Most CSAs host a farm open house at least once a year, which is a great opportunity to see where your food comes from and get to know the farmers you’re supporting. You’ll also meet other members, many of whom will be eager to exchange recipes.
Experiment With New Recipes CSAs are a great excuse to shake up your typical routine in the kitchen. If you normally stir-fry, try roasting! Or pickling. Or grilling. When the salad greens come on strong in the spring, experiment with new salad dressing recipes; and when the produce is really bumping in August, try your hand at making tomato sauce or salsa.
Are you involved in a CSA in your neighborhood? Share your stories—and recipes!—in the comments below.
About the author: Liz Carlisle is the author of Lentil Underground, which tells the story of a group of renegade farmers who made their farms more sustainable by sharing knowledge, resources, and inspiration. She holds a Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley, where she is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems.