Eat Locally: Community-Supported Agriculture

Can joining a farm co-op change the way your family eats?

By Wendy C. Fries
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines, MD

Eat five to nine servings of produce daily. It's a familiar refrain from the health care community, as familiar as the unripe tomatoes stocking supermarket bins, as recognizable as the brown-spotted lettuce in our market carts.

Even knowing that fruits and veggies are nutrient-rich, help maintain our weight, and stave off disease isn't enough to inspire many of us to tackle unripe, out-of-season or travel-weary produce.

But what if your family could enjoy local farm-grown fruits and veggies instead? Fresh goods such as lipstick-red peppers, golden tomatoes, and ghost-white eggplant, that are perhaps cheaper than those offered by supermarkets or farmers' markets?

It's this bountiful vision that has inspired many families to turn to consumer supported agriculture (CSA). Briefly defined, community supported agriculture is a way for the public to develop a relationship with a local farm.

What CSA farms offer members is unique: weekly shares of fresh-picked, in-season, locally grown, often organic produce, all for a flat weekly, monthly, or yearly fee. With some CSAs you'll pick part of the bounty yourself; others designate a pick-up spot in your area where you collect your share. Some even provide home delivery.

Originating in Japan more than 30 years ago, the CSA movement made its way to the U.S. in the late 1980s. According to Local Harvest, an online resource designed to bring together CSA farms and prospective customers, numbers in the U.S. have grown from about 50 CSA farms in 1990 to more than 1,000 currently.

Why Do People Join?

With such growth, it's clear that CSAs are offering something people want.

For Wisconsin CSA member Lorilei Fredrich, it's about the availability of organic produce and taking advantage of the best of the short Wisconsin growing season.

"The CSA gave us an opportunity to sample lots of good, in-season produce," she says.

Lynn Crosby, who runs a CSA in Creswell, Ore., with husband John Karlik, maintains that the best reason to join a CSA is "freshness. The second? Freshness!"

Sherry Dudas, farm planner for Honey Brook Organic Farm in Pennington, N.J., agrees, adding that "sometimes a zucchini was picked 15 minutes before a member comes to pick it up."

Motivation to join can include less tangible things, like a desire to support local growers or organic farming methods, community health -- even socializing.

"People talk to one another when they come to the farm," Dudas says, swapping everything from recipes to parenting advice.

Some CSAs encourage community building by sponsoring events such as summer solstice celebrations, accepting donations of produce for local charities, even organizing yoga classes.

Crosby encourages members to learn more about the food they're buying by hosting special farm days for kids, or by planning group events such as tomato canning or pesto making.

Even serenity can be a bonus of CSA membership, one member says.

"I love that my time harvesting ? feels like an adventure and peaceful 'me' time," says Meghan O'Connor, a CSA member in Pennington, N.J. "I can enjoy the sunshine on my face while I methodically harvest green beans for that evening's dinner. ... It is just a soul-nourishing and humbling experience!"

Can CSAs Make Produce Kid Friendly?

That hands-on experience is a big part of a CSA's appeal to kids.

When people bring their children to her farm, Dudas says, the kids have a chance to pick out their own fruits and veggies. Choosing between, say zebra-striped green tomatoes or fat, juicy red ones gives children "more ownership," she says. Some parents report that dinnertime becomes less of a struggle and kids are willing to try new things.

For Lisa Imerman, a Michigan attorney, involving her kids in a CSA offers something more elemental.

"I want [my kids] to see where the food we eat comes from, to connect with the food and the process of gardening and growing," she says.

Organic or Conventional?

Connecting her kids with nature wasn't the only reason Imerman joined her CSA. The fact that the produce was organic was a big draw.

Yet what if your local CSA isn't organic? Don't let that scare you off.

"I think organic produce is fabulous," says Kathleen Zelman, RD, director of nutrition for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, but "I don't think people should be scared into buying organic produce with the idea that that's the only way they'll be healthy."

Zelman offers a reminder that studies have yet to prove organic foods are more nutritious than conventional ones.

If it's a choice between organic produce shipped in from out of town and local, non-organic produce, Zelman recommends buying local hands down, saying the most important factor in the nutrition of your produce is the time it takes to get from farm to table.

Since CSAs are often within a few dozen miles of their members, that window between farm and table tends to be quite small.

Great Expectations

What can you expect to receive from your CSA? That depends on your location and preferences. But even in short-seasoned Michigan, Imerman was inundated with produce during the prime growing season.

One week's bounty for this CSA member included kale, onions, kohlrabi, sweet and hot peppers, Chinese greens, beets, 7 pounds of mixed summer squash, 5 pounds of cucumbers, 10 pounds of mixed tomatoes, red and green cabbage, ground cherries, spring onions, broccoli and cauliflower florets, lettuce, green beans, melon, and mixed herbs.

Of course, all of this seasonal produce is just that: seasonal. Most CSAs operate between May and November, though some farms stretch the season by importing things - such as eggs, cheese, or items that don't grow locally -- from other growers.

A limited season is not the only downside to CSAs. Some members express frustration with inconvenient pick-up times or locations, as well as lack of control over what kind of (and how much) produce they get.

Others wish their CSA offered more unusual produce. But Crosby reports that the primary reason members leave her CSA is because they're overwhelmed by too much variety!

Finding a CSA Near You

If the idea of freshness and variety inspires you to want to get your five to nine a day from a CSA, here are a few ways to find a nearby farm:

  • Check with your local co-op or health food store.
  • Talk to friends.
  • Visit Local Harvest's web site. You'll find a zip code-based database that can quickly help you locate CSAs in your neighborhood.

When you do find one, you can expect a share of produce large enough to feed one to two people that will cost in the neighborhood of $16 weekly, or about $300 yearly.

While most CSAs start winding down as the weather cools off, fall and winter are great times to join -- before spaces vanish as the next growing season begins.

Published Sept. 13, 2005.

SOURCES: Local Harvest web site. Lorilei Fredrich, CSA member, Wisconsin. Lynn Crosby, farmer, Good Food Easy, Creswell, Ore. Sherry Dudas, farm planner, Honey Brook Organic Farm, Pennington, N.J. Meghan O'Connor, CSA member, Pennington, N.J. Lisa Imerman, attorney; CSA member, Waterford, Mich. Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, director of Nutrition, WebMD Weight Loss Clinic.

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