"My CSA gives me more food than I can eat"

Slate has a column called "The Green Lantern: Illuminating answers to environmental questions." This response to a question about CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) was nicely done. CSAs are one of the many things Michael Pollan touched on in his recent, already widely read, already widely cited essay, Farmer-in-Chief (which, yes, I need to post about too--but there's a lot in there, and I haven't done so yet, though I'll get back to Pollan below.)

i-fded6e7fe1487929bc46162b648bb668-BoWA peppers.jpg

(From the "Best of What's Around" CSA outside Charlottesville)

So some guy writes to Slate and asks this:

Every week, I get a box of whatever produce the local farmer is currently harvesting. Here's the problem: It's nice to get fresh vegetables, but I often don't know what to do with the full haul--and end up throwing a good chunk of it in the trash. If I can't eat my share, is a CSA still an environmentally sound choice?

Then Jacob Leibenluft offers a well-reasoned and basically even-handed reply. He notes, for example, that even though the transportation issue is not as clear cut as some might like it to be (this is the Food Miles debate, more or less, about which start here and work backwards), the following is still about right: "All else being equal, the more you know about how something is produced, the more likely it is to be environmentally friendly. In that respect, it's a major improvement to get your food from a CSA."

As another example, while noting that not eating the food you get from your CSA is not a good thing--and that doing so contributes to the statistics on food waste in the US (we waste 27% of our food)--there is more to be said about the value of CSAs than the simple measure of food in/food out. To wit:

Even if you are wasting a little extra with the CSA, your membership may have other more subtle benefits for the environment. To start with, what you eat is at least as important as where it comes from--and being a member of a CSA allows you to pre-emptively devote much of your food budget to meals that are more eco-friendly, featuring less packaging, less processing, and (most crucially) less meat.

By investing your money upfront in a local farm, as opposed to simply buying local food, you're also helping to ensure that local farmers stay solvent.

One interesting contrast between this Slate column and Pollan's essay: Leibenluft writes that "Only 1,500 CSA farms now exist across the country, with membership in each ranging from a few hundred to a couple thousand." He means to show that the movement for CSAs is small.

Pollan, on the other hand, writes that "Community-supported agriculture is booming as well: there are now nearly 1,500 community-supported farms, to which consumers pay an annual fee in exchange for a weekly box of produce through the season."

So is 1500 a lot? Or not? What are we measuring it against? Acreage, $, participation, press coverage, quality food, the sheen on the pepper...? How many CSAs would be enough for Leibenluft to consider it a strong movement? How few would there have to be for Pollan to worry that it isn't sticking?

Whichever, lots to talk about these days, boatloads of public conversation about these issues, even if that doesn't necessarily mean 1500 is a big or small number. By the way, has anyone heard that 1500 is about the average food mile these days?

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"By the way, has anyone heard that 1500 is about the average food mile these days? "

No, but it wouldn't surprise me. On the east coast here a great deal of the produce on sale comes from the west coast (California, Oregon or Washington).

Any resources around on CSA? This is the first that I've heard of the concept.

By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 17 Oct 2008 #permalink

NoAstronomer - It all depends on where you live, b/c they are, by definition, local. I have friends that run a very small one (a dozen or so members), have been a working member of medium sized ones (a hundred or so members), and purchased shares in a larger one once (probably 500 members). They are wonderful. The trick is - you have to *want* to try some new food, and be willing to try out new recipies. My family now loves kholrabi and brussle sprouts. I'd never had either before joining a CSA. The better CSAs will give you recipies to try out for all the odd items you get. Some will let you do a partial share if you just want a little bit of stuff.

-Kevin

I was in a CSA one summer and had the same problem--often quite a lot of food, and a challenge to use it all. It was good though, especially the fruit and eggs. Now I use the farmer's markets more, but next season might look into another CSA.

NoAstronomer--Try these sites:

localharvest.org
farmtotable.org
eatwellguide.org
www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets

If you're looking for local/sustainable meat as well as produce, try these:

americangrassfed.org
apppa.org

Been a member of Planet 0rganics (produce delivery service in northern CA) almost from their beginning.

The stuff can be overwhelming until you adjust your habits.

But getting produce you've never even heard of before (which in SF is quite a trick) makes it worthwhile.

Have not had a CSA share for two years, as I now have a garden, but when I did, I used the extra food by learning to can and keeping omnivorous pets.

Localharvest.org is an excellent source if you don't know where to start. Their members don't always update their pages regularly, but in general the contact info is current.

If you are even a little ambitious, I highly recommend keeping pet chickens. They can live in a rabbit hutch sort of thing or in a "tractor" style coop, and they will happily eat everything from the CSA that you can't manage and your leftovers. Also, they will make you breakfast.

I shared a CSA a couple of years ago with some friends. I love them in theory. But practically, it wasn't the best thing for a busy graduate student with an unpredictable schedule. There's nothing more awful than arrive home at 10pm to discover you're supposed to make yourself a dinner than incorporates sunchokes.

The most important thing is this: people like me, that are aware of CSAs, often don't have the stable, traditional-family-with-kids, dinner-on-the-table sort of life that allows them to take advantage of them. On the other hand, those families to a large extent probably don't know about CSAs, or consider them to be weird hippie shit. The future of CSAs needs to be connecting them to the right people who could actually take good advantage of them - people that may not be politically inclined to get their food from anywhere but a supermarket. There's an army of people who could really enjoy them.

There are some simple ways to deal with excess produce. Share with neighbors and friends, especially those you know have limited food budgets. Talk to your CSA about making some adjustments in the quantity they give you if you're really overwhelmed.

Learn some simple preservation techniques. Freezing is easy and you can re-use some of those ubiquitous plastic containers from purchased foods. Canning is more fuss but still not very difficult. Seek out cookbooks with recipes for small batches of canned food; once you've got the technique down, you can put up a few jars in not much time at all.

Yes, everyone's busy but a few weekend afternoons spent putting up food can provide a winter's worth of food that will be better and cheaper than supermarket produce. Think of it as a life skill like being able to change a tire or mend a torn seam.

Oh yeah, to add to what Rugosa said:

When I was a busy grad student, and now that I'm a busy researcher, I only got about one afternoon per week to get all my household chores done. Meals, as jeffk says, varied in time, location, speed. So on my one afternoon per week, while the laundry was in the dryer, I cooked everything for the week at once. Salad veggies were washed and divided into single servings, one or two giant casseroles and a quiche were baked, partitioned into servings, and frozen. After a month or so, I had a choice of 5-6 different casserole dinners, salad-quiche-fruit for lunch, bagel w/ microwaved egg & cheese for breakfast. Everything could be heated in the microwave or toaster oven in a couple of minutes. One of my Thai friends introduced me to the most glorious kitchen appliance ever, the rice cooker--put in rice, veggies, frozen protein source & water, and push the button. When it beeps, you have enough nutritious food for at least 3-4 meals. Eat one serving, freeze the rest.

For the excess -- you know, almost every community has either food banks, or community services which do food deliveries to seniors and/or the housebound. Not every service is able to take fresh produce, but some are delighted to, and it is very worth looking them up, and calling and asking. You may be able to contribute some fresh food to people otherwise desperately lacking a quality diet.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 19 Oct 2008 #permalink