Community supported agriculture: Food to feel good about

It’s strawberry season!

The first fruits of our family’s membership in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program are starting to come in. This weekend, our kids will get back to the Earth (and get some of it on them) by picking a quart of berries at a farm just up the road from our house. And that will be just the start of a weekly harvest of fresh produce that’s locally and organically grown.

CSA is one model for locally-based agriculture and food distribution. It’s essentially a cooperative arrangement between a farmer and the local community. Members of a CSA program buy shares of the eventual harvest from the farmer at the beginning of the growing season and receive a portion of what the farmer produces in return.

The farmer gets help with the upfront costs of running a business that has a lot of uncertainty, like the weather, insects, or blight. The consumer gets a regular supply of produce fresh from the farm, sometimes at a discount over what they might pay at the grocery store.

Of course, with the shared benefits comes shared risk. If the growing season is bad for a certain crop, or an unexpected storm hits, that will affect the harvest. It can be disappointing. But the fact that the community is helping the farmer with costs could mean that the farmer can stay in business despite a bad harvest or devastating storm.

It made sense for my family, which includes two vegan teenagers, to give it a try this year. Each week, we’ll get up to eight items from the farm, such as a head of lettuce, a bag of spinach, a bundle of carrots, or a pound of green beans. We hope the experience will diversify the whole family’s food choices.

Being a CSA shareholder feels good because not only are we supporting our own community, but we are teaching our children where their food comes from and the work it takes to produce it.

You can find a CSA farm or other sources of locally grown food here.

CSA could be right for you if:

  • Eating locally grown food is important to you.
  • You cook the majority of your own meals.
  • You like a variety of different and fresh vegetables.
  • You can commit to picking up your produce share on the same day and at the same location each week. (Although some CSAs now offer door-to-door delivery).
  • You can tolerate some risk of not getting crops or crops not coming in as planned.
  • You want to support the local economy and small farm/agriculture industry.

Not all CSA farms are certified organic, although many do have a USDA certified organic seal. If this is a priority for you, ask about the farm’s growing practices before committing. Another important consideration is to find out what a CSA will provide. Some grow fruit, and others even include meat, eggs and honey.

If you want to eat fresh from the farm but can’t commit to CSA, you have other easy options:

  • Farmers’ markets: Many communities set aside places for farmers to sell their produce directly to the public.
  • Recovered food: Businesses like Hungry Harvest in the Washington, D.C., area take food that is perfectly edible but might be discarded by a restaurant or a grocery store because of a cosmetic imperfection. Some is sold to customers and some is donated to food banks or farmer’s markets.
  • Grow your own: It doesn’t take much space in your backyard or balcony to plant a few tomatoes, bell peppers or squashes—especially if you grow them vertically. If you pull the weeds and water the plants, you’ll have tasty produce you can call your own.