I joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for the first time in 2010. For me, the motivation to join a CSA was multi-dimensional. Working as a food/beverage analyst at the time, I had begun to notice a growing trend toward eating local food. This movement prompted me to check the origin of produce at my local grocery store. I had started to wonder about the nutrition content of the produce traveling to New York from Italy, New Zealand, Mexico, or even California. In my research, the acronym CSA kept coming up as part of the "eating local" trend. After reviewing all the available programs in my area, I joined The Full Plate Farm Collective, a multi-farm CSA. Since then I have continued to subscribe to the program, which runs from June to November every year. In this blogpost I share the awesome benefits of being part of a CSA.
What is a CSA?
Community supported agriculture (CSA) involves members of a community, meaning you and I, to sign up for a share of the crop from a single farm or a consortium of farms for a specified season or period. The share includes vegetables or fruits or both and you get a bag (or box) full of produce every week or every other week . This program usually requires members to pay for the entire season up front. Many CSAs, including The Full Plate Farm Collective, also offer easy installment payment plans to make it easier for members to pay in affordable chunks.
Why Join a CSA?
I never had Kohlrabi or Hakurei turnips or Scheming striped hollow tomatoes (pic below), or ..the list is quite long. Joining a CSA program introduced me to vegetables that either I would not have found or bought at a grocery store. Did I know how to cook these veggies? Absolutely not! But the CSAs often offer cooking ideas and recipes around most of their produce. Now I use Kohlrabi to make an Indian veggie dish, add crunchy Hakurei Turnip chips to a salad, and stuff the apple-looking tomatoes with my favorite grains and seasoning. The big brown grocery bag that my CSA, The Full Plate Farm Collective, allows me to fill every week has plenty of familiar veggies as well. But joining a CSA has benefits other than just finding unusual veggies in your bag.
1. Eat more vegetables
The United States Depart of Agriculture's (USDA) ChooseMyPlate, a program to help build healthy eating habits , recommends consuming 2.5 cups of vegetables every day. And, if you have read the confessions of Tom Brady’s personal chef, the USDA's suggested serving size may seem inadequate. The New England Patriot Quarterback’s 80% diet consists of vegetables. The bottom line is that increasing veggie consumption is good for health (more on this later). In my experience as a food analyst, the (high) cost of produce is one of the impediments to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. A CSA share, which includes a bag full of (often organic) vegetables, offers a cost-effective alternative to increase vegetable intake, especially if a CSA program also offers U-pick feature. My CSA offers the member-only U-pick program included in the weekly cost. This entails self (member) harvesting any farm-designated crop, for example tomatoes, in unlimited but reasonable quantity.
The first year I joined the CSA, the weekly bag-full-of-veggies seemed daunting as I was not sure how to finish so many veggies before the subsequent share came up the next week. But slowly, I started finding more recipes around my farm share and including more vegetables with each meal. By the end of the first season, my family's veggie intake had almost doubled.
2. Eat fresh and seasonal vegetables
In India, my mom and grandmother mostly used locally-grown seasonal vegetables. The choice of out-of-season vegetables in the market was limited at the time and home chefs in India were skeptical of anything that was out of season and came out of cold storage. Their use of local and seasonal produce was spot-on. As I sift through a number of scientific studies, I find that using local and seasonal produce offers superior flavor and nutrition. The CSAs offer freshly-harvested vegetables/fruits that are ripened on the plant. This offers two benefits: you get the maximum flavor out of the produce and (a few varieties of) veggies ripened on the plants are shown to have higher nutritional content compared to that are not (R&R:1&2). Additionally, commercial produce tend to get inferior in quality as it goes through post-harvest processing, packaging, and traveling.
Other than higher nutritional content and true flavors, a CSA share offers a wide variety of vegetables. It is like playing "I Spy" every week when I pick up my bag of veggies. The chart below from The Full Plate Farm Collective offers a glimpse into the dizzying array of vegetables available from June to November.
3. Support local farmers
Joining a CSA is a win-win proposition for the members as well as the famers. When you pay the full subscription for a CSA season up front, farmers don't need to look for other retail outlets for their crops.
4. An opportunity to be one with nature
As an architecture student more than two decades ago, I was greatly influenced by the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. I understood the reason for my fascination with his work years after I had graduated. I love nature! Frank Lloyd Wright's (architectural) design philosophy was greatly inspired by nature. He famously said,"Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature, it will never fail you." Many world-famous thinkers, scientists, artists, and saints including Einstein and Mother Teresa recommend to be one with nature as well. Joining a CSA that offers a U-pick program is a great way to connect with nature. Imagine picking five different varieties of tomatoes and being amazed by their colors and shapes. Imagine picking raspberries and being surprised by their black (not red) color. Imagine standing in an herb garden and getting drowned in the aroma of countless herbs. These experiences for me often become an unintended but a pleasant exercise in mindfulness as well.
5. Educate kids
I have often wondered if our kids know the origin of their food beyond what they see at a grocery store. Do they know that bread is made out of grains? Are they familiar with the rainbow that an array of fruit and veggies can create? Maybe or maybe not, specially if the food they eat comes primarily out of cans and packages. A 2013 British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) study suggests that kids exhibit confusion when asked about the sources of different types of foods. I belive that if kids know the origin of food ingredients and how they are used in cooking, they are more likely to use them as adults. Joining a CSA offers excellent opportunity to expose kids to a wide spectrum of fruits and vegetables.
Is a CSA program right for you?
As a seasoned CSA member who enjoys the farm to table experience, I can continue to drone on the benefits of joining a CSA. However, I do feel that the program may not be for everyone. Here are some factors that may help you decide if joining a CSA would work for you.
- A CSA membership comes with some time commitment in the form of devoting more time to cooking due to consistent high supply of vegetables and picking up weekly or bi-weekly share (if your CSA does not distribute a box). If you are not used to cooking a whole lot, then picking up a share every week may result in vegetables rotting in your refrigerator.
- You can decrease the time commitment by having a friend share the cost and veggies through the CSA season. Most CSAs offer this option.
- Before committing to a CSA, try getting a (brown) bag full of veggies either from a grocery store or farmers market and see if you are upto cooking a bag full of veggies every week or every other week.
- A CSA share offers seasonal vegetables and often the choice can seem limited, specially if you are used to cooking with both seasonal and non-seasonal veggies.
- If you are an aspiring cook and determined to increase your veggie intake, you can learn to cook around using seasonal vegetables. It can seem a daunting task at first, but becomes easier with time.
- If you travel a lot, especially during most part of a CSA season, then the program may not work for you.
REFERENCES AND RESOURCES (R&R)
- Lee, SK, Kader, AA. Preharvest and postharvest factors influencing vitamin C content of horticultural crops. Postharvest Biology and Technology. 2000; 20: 207–220.
- Dumas Y, Dadomo M, Di Lucca G, Grolier P. Review. Effects of environmental factors and agricultural techniques on antioxidant content of tomatoes. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 2003; 83: 369–382.