First thing every Thursday morning, Alex bounces downstairs and out the garage door, even before a bite of breakfast. He’s looking for a treasure chest in the form of a waxy cardboard box, with some leafy greens poking out, more often than not. Once Alex brings home the bounty, and we pick apart each item, excited to try the exotic fruits and vegetables we find.
This experience has become our weekly ritual. Before this, we were finding our taste buds were stuck in a rut eating the same old thing every week. As a result, we restarted our CSA box subscription. We rely on it now to reinvigorate our cooking and inspire our palate.
What is a CSA?
The acronym stands for Community-Supported Agriculture – CSA. It describes local farms that supply regular people like us with fresh fruits and vegetables. The produce usually comes from their own farms as well as neighboring farms that the farmers partner with to provide a wide variety of goodies.
Naturally, a CSA box is the treasure chest that arrives from the farm that we subscribe to. It contains the goodies we look forward to consuming every week. For example, this week we’re looking forward to persimmons, Red Butter lettuce, Little Gem lettuce, Delicata squash, and shallots.
How does a CSA differ from the regular grocery store?
At first glance, you might think a CSA is simply a farm that delivers me food. It’s not much different than the fruits and vegetables I find in a grocery. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find a world of difference. A local farm can pick its produce at peak ripeness to maximize the flavors and nutrients. It can provide the best of what’s currently in season and expose you to fruits and vegetables you’ve never experienced before.
It’s the difference between biting into a Red Delicious apple, that though beautifully bright red and shiny, tastes mealy, dry, and bland versus crunching into a Golden Delicious apple, while a smidgen smaller, is still bright yellow, and tastes sweet, juicy, and crisp.
Why do I invest in a CSA box?
I’ll admit for some vegetables and bulbs like celery and onions, I don’t always notice a difference in quality. I usually cook these vegetables to the point of liquefying them so they are in the background as supporting actors anyway. However, when I enjoy leafy greens raw like butter lettuce or carrots and tomatoes raw, or even apples and grapes, I can really taste the superior flavors, textures, and sunshine. I swear!
Of course, there are many other benefits to supporting a local farm beyond my selfish reasons for tasty produce. Those reasons include:
- purchasing food with a smaller carbon footprint (flying in strawberries from Chile in the dead of winter ain’t fossil fuel free)
- sustainable growing practices that the smaller farms tend to use
- supporting the local agricultural economy
- organic and pesticide free, if you care about that kind of thing (though it comes with some pitfalls that I’ll explain in a future article)
- and most importantly, the ability to smugly tell your friends and family, “Oh, we get our produce from a CSA. Tastes so much better. We like to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem. THANKS!” (Reference to the Smug Alert episode from South Park, in case you didn’t catch that and no, we don’t actually say that to any friends or family).
The two biggest reasons I prefer food from the local farms are 1. taste, 2. variety.
Left to my own devices, I would never venture out to try novel vegetables, like kohlrabi, fennel, or Romano beans. Part of it is practical, I don’t know where to buy Romano or Cranberry beans in the grocery store. The other part is pure laziness. I have my staples and I like to stick to them because it requires less energy and forethought to fish out a recipe to cook these exotic things.
As a result, you and I both know who has benefited the most from our CSA boxes. Alex, of course. His love of variety means that he is constantly excited and satisfied to try this new and funky-looking vegetable or gourd that he’s never tasted before.
Who else is buying CSA boxes?
Six years ago, I first heard about CSA from my then-boss and editor at the newspaper where I interned. She brought a big plastic takeout box filled to the brim with jalapeño peppers to share at the office. I inquired how she came to possess such a big box of these peppers and she mentioned she subscribes to this thing called a CSA box.
On and off over the years, I’ve subscribed to a CSA box and stopped for various reasons, including I left California and moved to another state and didn’t bother to restart a CSA box subscription.
A few years ago, when I moved back to California, I used to see the odd CSA box wink at me from a random house I would pass by on my neighborhood walks. It was rare because I don’t think many people knew about CSA boxes. It was like a secret handshake you had to learn from a friend through word of mouth because many of these farmers don’t market their CSA boxes widely.
Since then, I’ve discovered more people than I realized subscribe to CSAs. I see the leftover flattened cardboard boxes in my neighbors’ recycling bins. I’ve seen the boxes at the recycling dumpsters on campus. I see my neighbors posting about their CSA boxes on Nextdoor. And Alex told me yesterday he even saw a flyer ad for a CSA box on the bulletin board at the gym.
So, the secret’s out. And I’m thrilled! I hope more people come to recognize what a great source of delicious food they can get from a CSA box and choose to invest in subscribing to one.
Isn’t it expensive to subscribe to a CSA box?
Not really. We’ve found that we spend about the same per week despite subscribing to three (yes, three!) different CSA boxes. My theory for why our grocery bill stayed the same is that we were paying for additional overhead that comes with fresh produce at the grocery store, such as retail store rental fees, clerks’ paychecks, delivery and stocking fees, etc. I’ll publish more on the costs in a later article for the skeptics who aren’t convinced.
Can’t I buy the same stuff at Safeway, Ralphs, Trader Joes, or [Insert your nearest grocery store]?
Some yes, some no. I noticed last week when I shopped at Trader Joes (yes, I still go to conventional grocery stores, more on that in a future article) that it sells a kohlrabi salad blend. It’s great to see the mainstream grocery stores carry some of these lesser known fruits and vegetables. But as a whole, they still do not stock the giant variety that you will find through a CSA box.
I challenge you to find a grocery store that carries Cranberry beans and Crenshaw melons and Delicata squash.
Found one!! What about Whole Foods?
Yes, you can buy many of the more exotic fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods. Though I’d challenge you to shop at Whole Foods and say your argument about the expense of a CSA box with a straight face. Even if prices are immaterial to you, I’d still argue that shopping at Whole Foods continues to feed laziness and mundane routine. If you’re like me, then you tend to shop for the same recipes, making the same family favorites and don’t experience the joys of being introduced to a new vegetable that’s both curious and vexing at the same time (that’s fennel for me).
I’d argue the main reason people don’t get CSA boxes is inertia. It’s a different way of doing things. It requires energy to research which CSA box to choose, where to pick it up, and what to do with that weird vegetable thing.
Don’t worry. That’s why Alex and I are here! We share our weekly haul and what to do with these goodies on this website.
We’re lucky, lucky, lucky
Living in California, we are truly spoiled by the plethora of CSA choices we have. We’re in the proverbial breadbasket of the country. The variety of fresh, local, delicious fruits and vegetables are unparalleled. It’s good news too for the non-Californians. With the trend of farmers markets popping up in many cities, many of these fruits and vegetables are within reach. Community-supported agriculture is not only a Californian phenomenon. There are many CSA subscription services throughout the country in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Washington, and Oregon. In fact, one of the first CSA farms in the U.S., Angelic Organics, is based in Illinois.
Is it risky to try a CSA because it’s different and requires thinking? Perhaps, but you owe it to yourself to give a CSA box a try. There are a number of good ones I personally subscribe to that offer a one-time purchase or trial period to get you started. And if you stick with us, we’ll be here holding your hand during the whole journey. We’ll get to try all kinds of quirky and tasty vegetables together. And we’re hoping to learn from your recipes too!
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of my series on CSA boxes where I’ll be sharing the story of how I came to choose the CSA boxes I subscribe to and how we ended up with three.