One way to eat locally and supportyour local real food producers is to join a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. Basically, a CSA is a farm-share where a farmer offers up a number of shares, subscriptions or memberships, which you pay for in advance.
In return for paying your dues, at a set interval (usually weekly during the growing season), you receive a bounty of seasonal produce. Most CSAs come directly from a specific farm or group of farms, while others may supplement the weekly supply with other suppliers, during lower yield times of year, such as early spring or late fall. There are CSAs that offer only produce, while others might offer cuts of meat, or other products like yogurt, cheeses or bread.
Sounds great right? It sure can be, since you’ll get fresh, local food at a lower price than what you’d pay in the store, and you’ll learn more about what you eat and the farmer who grows it.
But here are a few questions to ask yourself before you join a CSA:
1. Can you commit and join a CSA for a set period of time?
Many CSAs operate by having you commit to a weekly share for a set number of weeks. This probably won’t work out for you if you plan on going away on vacation for four weeks out of the growing season.
2. Will you be available to pick-up for the set amount of time?
Since you’re buying a share, chances are the farmer won’t be able to hold your order if you miss the pick-up time. Before committing, make sure you have someone who can pick-up for you, or can take your week’s share if you can’t make it on your pick-up day.
3. How flexible are you with your cooking and meal planning?
If you plan your meals on what you’d like to eat instead of what’s available to you, it could get a lot trickier for you to figure out what to do with your week’s CSA box. You can’t usually determine what the produce you’ll be getting ahead of time, nor the quantity you’re likely to get, so it may be hard to plan for a specific recipe by relying solely on your CSA.
4. Are you an adventurous eater?
There’s a good chance you’ll be exposed to some local produce that you may never have tried before. Fiddleheads, wild garlic and gooseberries could all be found locally to you and could be included in your box. If you’re not sure what to do with them, there’s a good chance your farmer will have a good recipe, but make sure you’re up for a little real food adventure, or else you’ll feel gypped.
5. Does it work with your budget and way of eating?
The season and your locale will determine the contents of your CSA share, and while what you get will likely cost you less than buying at a store, it may be that you’ll still need to supplement your CSA share with store-bought produce to make up your recipes. The single bunch of broccoli may not be enough for all three of your mini-tree chomping kids, or your share may be plentiful in potatoes one week– not great if you’re on a low-carb diet, or sensitive to nightshades. If your budget is pretty tight, you might be better off buying the loss-leaders of seasonal, local produce from your local supermarket than participating in a CSA.
6. Are you willing to share the risk of buying into a farm?
Most CSAs work on the model that you buy a share of the farm’s growing season in advance of it actually producing any food. This means that while the farmers will do their best to produce a good yield, there is the chance that there might not be as much as expected should their be poor weather conditions, for example. Buying into a CSA creates a great sense of community with your local growers, but make sure that you’re aware of the possible outcome and have realistic expectations on yield.
If you’ve answered “no” to any of these questions, a CSA may not be for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find other ways to support local real food. You can always buy produce from your farmer directly, but not as part of a CSA or shop your local farmers’ market. Another alternative is to see if your city offers a Good Food Box or similar type program. Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Victoria are just some of the cities that offer such a program. They are similar to CSAs, but don’t require the multiple-week commitment.