It’s been about two years since my neighbor and I started subscribing to a CSA box (if you’re not familiar with CSAs, it stands for Community Supported Agriculture, where a farm offers weekly shares of vegetables – you get very fresh and local produce and they get a steady income to support their farm).
Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten a lot better about using it. Now there are few things that show up that strike fear into my heart (I even managed to use the very bizarre-looking kohlrabi last night in a Thai stir-fry dish).
The first week that we got it, Bart was not very impressed. I think he had visions of a boxful of the kinds of things his grandmother grew in her (extremely large) garden – berries, grapes, apples, and the occasional carrot.
Our CSA is not like that (and I kind of suspect most of them are not). It’s heavy-duty vegetables. There aren’t a lot of things to eat in there straight out of the box – most of it needs some prep.
So it was definitely a bit of a learning curve; we had to learn what some of these unidentifiable vegetables were, how to prepare them in ways we liked, and how to eat more vegetables than we ever had before.
But now, we’re big fans. If you’re wondering about taking the leap, let me try to convince you a little:
- It forces you to incorporate more vegetables into your diet. I know – you think you could just use your money and buy vegetables at the grocery store instead. But, I’m pretty sure most of us get distracted by the Triscuits and Cheerios, when we mean to be buying more organic bok choy. But when your fridge is suddenly full of vegetables, you’re much much more likely to actually eat them.
- Your food has a much smaller carbon footprint. Even if you did buy the same amount of vegetables at the grocery store, most of those vegetable will have made a long trek across the country, using up loads of fuel to both keep it fresh and to actually transport it. (This is one of the issues I have with Bountiful Baskets – nearly all of the produce is still coming from either California or Central and South America).
- It is significantly fresher. Instead of your produce being picked before it’s ready so that it won’t be bad by the time it shows up on your grocery store shelf two weeks later, your food is picked the day, sometimes only an hour or two before, you get it.
- There is less food waste involved. I read the very excellent American Wasteland earlier this year, about the tremendous amount of food that’s wasted in the US, and LOADS of that comes at the farm level, where food doesn’t look picture perfect or ripened too fast to withstand a multi-week trek to your grocery bag. With a CSA, they’re willing to give you tomatoes that are a little bit misshapen or peppers that are a multi-colored. In a commercial farm, they’d probably just be thrown away or left to rot in the field. Of course, once you get the vegetables, it’s up to you to make sure it doesn’t rot in your refrigerator instead.
- It introduces you to new produce. I had never eaten chard before. I’d never cooked with bok choy. I had no idea what kale or arugula tasted like. I love that not only am I so familiar with many new kinds of vegetables and how to use them, but that Ella casually asks as I unload the box, “What we doing wif that parsnip?” (Answer: sticking it in Shepherd’s Pie).
- You eat seasonally without even having to think about it. I don’t have to wonder if tomatoes are in season or if I shouldn’t be eating arugula at this time of year. I love the seasonal rotation of vegetables and that, just when I think I can’t eat another sweet potato, they’re gone for the season and something new takes its place.
- You are introduced to (and eat) a wider variety of produce. I find it very easy to buy the same handful of vegetables over at the grocery store (tomatoes, avocados, onions) and nothing more. With the CSA, we eat dozens of different varieties of produce and I don’t have to think about it too much.
- It’s a fun challenge to use up your vegetables. Every week, I check what will be coming in the box and then I find recipes to use it up. When I’m browsing recipes on Pinterest or blogs, it’s easy for me to say, “Oh, kale! I’m going to need three months of ways to use that up this summer!” and then have plenty of new recipes ready when it starts showing up every week. When there are vegetables we don’t really like (such as arugula), its intensely satisfying to figure out how to make them part of our diet without making us all miserable (Bart told me early on that we could do the CSA as long as we still ate delicious dinners. I’m ridiculously proud whenever he comments on how many good things we eat that incorporate our CSA produce).
- It’s almost always a less expensive way to eat more organic food. I’ve been amazed at the good value I feel like I get from my CSA. Buying the same amount of organic produce at the grocery store would not be as inexpensive.
- If you’re looking to reduce how much meat you eat, a CSA is a great way to do so. When I make a dish that does have meat, I can get away with using half a chicken breast or a quarter pound of ground beef, because I have so many vegetables to bulk up our dishes with. On Sunday night, when I made Shepherd’s Pie, it fed four adults, with leftovers, and I only used about 1/3 of a pound of ground beef.
- Your food dollars are going to your community rather than a national or international chain. I love that I know that a good portion of my grocery bill is going directly to people in my community. It’s money I feel really happy about spending because my family gets the health benefits and Johnson’s Backyard Garden gets the financial benefit.
Next week, I’ll share some of recipes I like for using up our CSA vegetables (like chard, bok choy, cabbage, arugula, and turnips) and blogs that are the most helpful in providing recipes. If you have questions about CSAs, I’d love to try and answer them (although I am far from a pro).