As Billie Hara’s “What’s for Lunch?” series shows, meal planning can be tough in academia. After a long day of teaching, writing, preparing, meeting with students, and participating in committees, the last thing I want to do is come home and have to think up something for supper. At the same time, I do desire to eat foods that are as fresh as possible. For my household, joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) group has been a lifesaver. In this article I want to describe the system and the benefits from participating in a CSA, as well as some practical tips that can be useful for getting the most out of your share purchase.
CSAs are a system set up by a farm (or even groups of farms) where customers, or shareholders, pay a flat fee for a part of the farm’s production for a given period of time, often 3-6 months. Usually the share is purchased up front a month or two before the season begins, but some CSAs do offer payment plans.
Typically shareholders receive a weekly or biweekly delivery of a box of goods that includes what is in season at the time. Offerings mostly include combos of produce, meat, dairy products, baked goods, flowers, herbs, with the most common being produce.
The farmer benefits by having guaranteed income, and the consumer benefits by getting the freshest produce possible. By joining a CSA, you’re promising to support the farm no matter what. The shareholder and the farmer partner together and share in both times of bounty and times of challenge.
- You don’t have to put much thought into meal planning, as the box will dictate what you eat for a week or two.
- Items in your share boxes have traveled typically less than 100 miles and were often picked that day, meaning you’re getting the freshest product possible.
- Purchasing a share means that your food money stays local. Our CSA, Avalon Acres, coordinates the collection of items from approximately 40 different vendors, which means that my food money goes directly towards supporting over 400 local people.
Participating in a CSA can be a significant benefit for you and your household but it can take some time to get the most out of your membership. After participating in CSAs for over three years I’ve gathered a few tips that have been helpful to me in getting the most out of my share.
- Learn some basic cooking techniques, such as sauteeing, roasting, braising, and broiling. These methods allow for quick cooking of the produce without much prep work.
- Have a couple of trusted recipe sources to which you can easily refer. For websites, I love Simply Recipes. For cookbooks, my go-to author is Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa fame. Each source focuses on simple preparation of ingredients which really highlights the flavors and allows them to shine.
- Know some basic food preservation techniques. Life gets busy and you may not be able to get to your produce in a given week, or you might want to preserve the bounty for colder months. It’s easy to stash some away in freezer bags. Canning is a little more involved, but if you have a few hours you can put up a few jars of basic items such as zucchini relish and apple butter to enjoy or even give away as gifts. I’ve had good success with recipes from the book The Complete Book of Year-Round Small Batch Preserving. And of course, if you do go the canning route, you’ll want to be well-versed on the safety behind the process. It’s important that canning be done properly or you can run into some nasty organisms in your food (botulism, anyone?) County extension offices often provide upon request booklets with up-to-date information.
- Make a menu plan once you get your produce. If you’re lucky, your CSA will often send out an email the day before delivery, with details about what’s coming. Otherwise, once you get your box home, take a moment to carefully store everything properly and make a menu. Thirty minutes of careful planning will pay off throughout the rest of your week.
- Pick a good delivery date. Many CSAs will have a couple of different delivery days throughout the week, and choosing one to complement your schedule can make a big difference in how you’re able to plan for using your items. This semester, I learned the hard way that Wednesdays are not so good for our household. I’m already planning to switching to a Sunday delivery next year, which will give me more time to do my menu planning.
- Have someone in mind to share your goods with when you can’t use them. Life happens and some time spans during the semester are just busier than others, not to mention what traveling can do to your ability to use up the produce. In those times, I’m very happy to share my produce with friends and they’re very happy to get it.
Our household has had a great experience with CSAs. Over the past few years, our shares have included amazing variety, including potatoes, corn, tomatoes, blackberries, peas, peaches, pumpkins, herbs, cantaloupe, bell peppers of many colors, zucchini, beets, lettuce, mustard greens, rutabagas, and many more items. It’s really been extraordinary.
Combining the produce we get with a large share of meat from a family member’s farm, we find that we need the grocery store only for pantry and dairy items. Our participation has most definitely simplified the way we eat and has given us a lot of satisfaction.
If you’re interested in joining one yourself, check out the directory at Local Harvest. Most CSAs are taking registrations now for spring and summer programs, so you’ll want to check the information now. Many CSAs (like ours) also have special programs through which you can order holiday turkeys and hams. Happy eating!
(Photos are of Avalon Acres Farm and are used by permission, except for the index photo, which is by flickr user thebittenword.com / CC licensed. Check out more great CSA-related pictures in Flickr’s CSA group.)