Community-supported agriculture programs–or CSAs–offer access to organic vegetables, fruits, and other produce that are fresher than what you find in most grocery stores. By buying a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly subscription, or “share,” you can get fresh produce straight from your local or regional farm to your doorstep. Depending on your subscription plan, boxes usually contain 7-10 different vegetables, enough for a family of 2-3. At many CSAs, a basic box contains only vegetables; but most offer options to add on fruit, eggs, meat, flowers, honey, and other local products for additional costs.
CSA produce is the way to go if you’re looking for more nutritious and delicious produce to feed yourself and your family. Generally, grocery store produce is picked before it’s ripe to reduce the risk of spoilage during transit. That produce immediately starts to lose its fresh taste and many of its nutrients before you can purchase it at the grocery store. With CSAs, vegetables and fruits stay on the vine longer until they are picked at perfect ripeness and quickly transported to subscribers, providing maximum freshness, flavor and nutrient levels (especially vitamins A, B, C and E).
Not only do CSAs provide nutritious foods that promote good health, they also benefit the environment. CSAs are locally and regionally located, meaning there is less travel time and fewer CO2 emissions to get the produce to the consumer. Additionally, farms that sell to grocery stores tend to overproduce to ensure that they can meet demand, which increases the amount of food waste. Since shares are allotted prior to the start of the season, the emphasis for farms is on quality, not quantity. By putting their funds and attention towards a smaller amount of quality crops, farms can embrace the “whole-farm, whole-budget system.” This way, farms can better allot their resources and protect against waste by growing seasonal crops that work with the land and season. Less food waste is yet another plus for CSA’s.
Subscribers pay for their shares before the start of the June to November season. This provides the farms with cash flow to purchase new seeds, repair equipment, and prepare for the produce delivery. As a result, subscribers share crop risk with the farm–they accept the risk that, despite having paid up front for the whole season, they may not always get a bountiful box of produce. If your box is less than what you normally expect, you typically aren’t reimbursed; this “collective responsibility” creates a feeling of community among the members and farmers since everyone shares the benefits and losses of the harvest.
As a subscriber, you would receive familiar vegetables and fruits such as bell peppers, potatoes, beans, and squash; however, there is also likely to be some new produce you haven’t experienced before. That’s one of the perks of CSA shares–getting to try new, nutritious foods that you may not have picked out for yourself. We created a list of some seasonal produce that might make an appearance in your produce box in the next couple of months if you decided to join a CSA.
Fennel is a bulbous vegetable with green stalks and dill-like leaves that has a sweet licorice flavor that’s strong when raw, but softens when cooked. Its vitamin C content offers antioxidant and immune system support, while its fiber, folate, and potassium promote cardiovascular and colon health. While most recipes call for the white bulb, you can use the stalks and fronds in stock and soup recipes to give your dish a unique, “can’t put my finger on it” flavor. To add a crunchy and slightly sweet addition to your next salad, thinly slice up the white bulb and toss with your greens. Grapefruit also works well with fennel, so add a few pieces to make your salad next-level.
Swiss chard contains at least 13 different polyphenol antioxidants and is very low-calorie, making it a top-tier ingredient to use in cooking. It’s considered one of the healthiest vegetables in the world, second only to spinach when it comes to total nutrient-richness. Swiss chard leaves are tender and have a mild flavor akin to spinach, though some find them to be slightly bitter. Although they aren’t always eaten, Swiss chard stems are slightly sweet and make for a healthy, crunchy snack. It is a sturdy, leafy green that stands up well when sautéed, braised, or even eaten raw. Shake up your normal kale or spinach salad by swapping in Swiss chard.
Rhubarb, those gorgeous pink stalks with the bright green leaves that you most likely avoid (they leaves are poisonous when consumed), is chock-full of antioxidants, including potassium, magnesium, calcium, fiber, and vitamins K and C. Although rhubarb is technically a vegetable, many treat it like a fruit since it is mostly used in baking. Because of its extreme tartness when raw, rhubarb is most always cooked or baked to soften the flavor. It pairs well with strawberries and can be used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes (though, sweet dishes are much more common). A simple rhubarb syrup does wonders over breakfast favorites like pancakes, and can be used to make low calorie beverages by mixing one part syrup to three parts soda water.
Beets have a distinct, sweet flavor that people tend to either enjoy immensely or strongly dislike (some say beets taste like earthly). They’re loaded with B vitamins, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, and potassium. Also, beets have been known to lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart disease. When preparing beets, cook them for as little time as possible since their concentration of phytonutrients diminishes when exposed to heat. After peeling off the thin skin, boil, roast, or steam sliced beets to add to other dishes such as salads or eat as a side dish.
Okra, or “ladies’ fingers,” are green pods that are low in calories and full of dietary fiber, vitamins, and nutrients. They have a short freshness life and become tough when overripe, usually around four days after achieving perfect ripeness. Externally, okra is fuzzy, while internally okra has a silky, gooey substance that acts as a thickening agent in stews, soups, and gumbos (and is full of soluble fiber). Cutting okra into small pieces or cooking it at high temperatures can cause this nutrient dense vegetable to become slimy, a quality not everyone enjoys.
Cantaloupe is one of the lowest calorie melons around, making it a great fruit to aid weight loss. It’s known to reduce the risk of cancer, lower blood pressure, decrease the risk of obesity, and promote digestive regularity. Furthermore, cantaloupe is extremely hydrating because of its high water content. Though cantaloupe is used in a variety of sweet dishes, it also makes a tasty (and healthy) addition to savory plates. Depart from using cantaloupe in your traditional fruit salad, and try making a cold cantaloupe soup that hydrates and cools you down on warm days. Also, wrap prosciutto around melon balls for a quick snack.
Whether sweet or tart, cherries are full of nutrients and vitamins that support good health. Sweet cherries are known to combat cancer thanks to their beta carotene, vitamin C, anthocyanins and quercetin. Tart cherries can help you get a better night’s rest due to their melatonin content, and can ease muscle soreness. If you’re watching your waistline, cherries are for you! In animal tests, tart cherries were found to lower inflammation and triglyceride levels. Add some extra sweetness and a health boost to your salad by adding pitted, halved cherries. If you’re on the go, bring a handful of cherries with you in a portable food container for a quick, healthy snack.
To learn more about CSA’s and find one near you, visit Local Harvest’s website. Once you experience the CSA produce and all of its environmental benefits, you may never go back to supermarket produce!