Have you ever thought about joining a CSA? I did, then I quit, then I rejoined. Along the way, I learned a few things about how a CSA works and how to make it work for my family. Here's what I wish I knew—and what you should know if you're thinking about joining one.
What is a CSA, and what are its benefits?
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. According to Local Harvest, an organization dedicated to connection people with local farmers, the premise is consumers purchase a "share" (basically a membership or subscription) in the CSA and, in return, receive boxes of seasonal produce (and sometimes other farm products) weekly throughout the farming season.
CSAs are mutually beneficial: Farmers get paid in advance of the season and can more accurately plan their planting, and consumers get locally sourced good and a chance to be introduced to new foods they might not otherwise try. "A CSA is a partnership," says Melissa Goldberg, who's run the Farm & Fork Society CSA since 2008. "It helps the farmers, the members, and the local economy.”
CSAs also teach people what it really means to eat seasonally, Goldberg says. “People are used to having all types of fruits and vegetables year-round in the market," she says. "When people are new to the CSA, they will ask me in May or June, ‘Where are the tomatoes?' I have to explain that local-grown tomatoes aren’t harvested in New Jersey until August.”
Another benefit: CSAs teach people about “real food” and how it differs from ready-for-sale produce. “Lettuce doesn’t grow triple-washed for your convenience," Goldberg says. "Our lettuce and spinach comes straight from the farm. It grew in the ground, so it’s dirty and needs to be cleaned. And people are surprised, even scared, when they find small worms in the tip of their organic corn, but that's normal."
Why I dropped out of my CSA
I initially joined a CSA in 2018. Almost immediately, I realized that I had literally bit off more than I (or my family) could chew.
I lacked the cooking skills and creativity to use all of the items I received each week. I was overwhelmed by the amount of food in each box, some of which I had no clue what it was or how to serve it. I'm not the only one, says Danielle Schwab, founder of Illuminate Foods CSA. "People are used to going to the supermarket and picking out the foods they recognize and want to eat," she says. "With a CSA, the customer has to shift their mindset to working with what they have instead of what they want.”
I was riddled with guilt each week by the amount of food I was throwing away. So after my first year, I stopped.
Why I rejoined
The pandemic forced me to re-examine my family's eating. Back in March and April, going to the market seemed risky. I started using a food delivery company, but service was erratic and the produce I received wasn’t great. I thought I’d be able to make weekly trips to the farmer’s market by June, but social distancing was hard to enforce in this arena, so I stopped going.
Then I heard about Schwab’s new Illuminate Foods program, a hybrid-CSA model. She started the company to help local farmers struggling due to the pandemic. "With restaurants closed, many of these famers lost their main customer," she says. "Farming is a full-time job, so they don’t have time to market or find new consumers, so I wanted to bridge that gap.”
As with a traditional CSA, each Illuminate customer receives an assortment of fresh produce, but Schwab's weekly boxes also include milk, eggs, yogurt, or cheese; fresh bread; and a few locally sources specialty items. She also includes recipes and has set up a Facebook page to help customers find ways to use the items in their box.
I’ve enjoyed receiving my CSA box every other week. Instead of being frustrated by the new items I might not buy on my own, I am inspired to get more creative in the kitchen. Pre-pandemic, my afternoons were spent on the go, with little time to prep for dinner before everyone was starving. Now I have more time at home, so I enjoy menu planning and have time to cook with the ingredients I receive in the share, and Schwab's recipes and resources really do help get me inspired.
Expert tips for making a CSA work
- Flexibility: “CSA’s appeal to a certain type of person that is open and flexible," Goldberg says. "It’s really a case of,‘You get what you get, and you don't get upset,' and you need to be able to work with that structure."
- Start slowly: I found out the hard way that a CSA membership can be overwhelming. Goldberg suggests new members start with the smallest share offered and, if possible, find a friend to split the membership with so that you can ease in and only get food every other week.
- Be open-minded: "Google is your friend," Goldberg says. If you're not sure what an item is or how to serve it, do some online research!
- Get creative: When I saw all those green leafy vegetables initially, all I could think is, "How much salad can I eat?" Now I'm more creative, turning it into soups, smoothies, and even freezing for later use. Goldberg is a big fan of canning. "I just got two crates of tomatoes from our farm that I am going to can so that in January our family can still eat local produce," she says.
- Understand what you're paying for: Share prices differ by CSA. Illuminate's fall farm box weekly rate is $75; Farm & Fork's basic share is about $30 per week for 24 weeks ($610 for the season, plus a $75 boxing fee). Regardless, the rate for locally sourced items will probably be more expensive than what you're used to at the supermarket. But the quality is better. I’ve noticed the eggs yolks are yellower, the apples are crisper, and the carrots are sweeter. “We are trying to build a bridge between the grower and the eater," Schwab says. "A lot of factors go into growing food. Our hope is that if the consumer feels a connection they will be willing to paying a little more to support the farmers.”