Community Supported Agriculture in a City Kitchen
Adopt a Local Farm and Eat Well
CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, makes it possible for us to have a direct relationship with a local farmer. We want locally grown, safe food. Farmers who grow edible food -- not thousands of acres of Fritos-bound wheat fields -- want and need stable markets for their crops.
CSA matches us up.
If CSA sounds bureaucratic and jargon-y, instead think of it as having your own personal organic produce coop in your neighborhood. For about $15 to $20 a week, you can buy fresh from the farm vegetables (no cliché -- for once this is true), enough for a small family. If you have a larger family, you can sign up for more. Smaller? Some CSAs let you buy less. The model is simple, brilliant and authentic.
How CSA Works
A CSA is a not-for-profit organization that serves as a matchmaker or broker to make it possible for individual consumers to order and pay for -- in advance -- a season's worth of produce. In exchange, a small, family farm knows it has a reliable market and it gets some income ahead of the harvest, helping the farmers plant crops for the year. You, the consumer, buy a share in the coming season, which usually results in enough produce for two persons for one week. You know the farm in which you're investing and where your food will come from and you receive the produce -- almost always organic -- right after it's been harvested.
The concept of CSA began in Switzerland and Japan in the 1960's and the idea gradually took hold throughout Europe, coming to the U.S. in the 1980's. There are now more than 400 CSA farms located across the U.S. where you'd expect them to be: near clusters of small and family-owned farms and communities that have the education, awareness and financial resources to purchase CSA shares. That means most of them are in the Northeast, California and the upper Midwest.
But this is no urban luxury item. In New York, many of the CSAs work with local community groups to bring this wonderful locally grown food to those with lower incomes, making good food truly affordable. Its two-part goal is simple: keep farming viable and help people eat better.
Each CSA is different in its terms and arrangements. Some offer what are called "family shares," "half shares," and "individual shares." Others have simpler options. Some let you pay by credit card. A few have fancy web sites. All require some of your time volunteered to help run the distribution.
Once a week your farm delivers produce, and sometimes also eggs, poultry, meat, dairy products, honey and other organic items, to a depot-like location where member volunteers distribute the food and the CSA members pick up that week's supply. What you receive will depend upon what's in season, the weather, and the type of share you've purchased at the start of the season. For example, you may have only signed up for vegetables or maybe also fruit, eggs, or dairy products.
Each CSA operates as a coop and that means that every member volunteers for some period of time to work at the delivery location, helping to pack and distribute that week's produce. Your volunteer work commitment can be as little as 4 hours in a 20-week farm season.
In New York City, JustFood.org serves as a clearinghouse, coordinator and leader in efforts to match New Yorkers with local farms. In the five NYC boroughs, there are 50 "delivery neighborhoods" which are the specific locations supplied by specific farms. Many of the farms also sell their produce, eggs and dairy products at various New York City Greenmarket locations.
Visit JustFood's web site (see below) to find a listing of individual delivery neighborhoods and contact information for the organization that runs each site. Some have their own web sites. Others must be contacted by telephone. Be patient and understanding with the communication support for these programs: remember that these people are farmers and have a mission of distributing food and may not always have the resources to launch and run multi-function web sites. Web sites are useful but we can't eat them and it's a relief to know that these people have their focus on the right things.
The City Cook's CSA Adventure
Here's what I'm doing this summer: I've become a member in Manhattan's Columbus Circle CSA. This CSA is affiliated with Norwich Meadow Farm, a NOFA-NY (Northeast Organic Farming Association) certified organic 35-acre farm located in Norwich, New York, about 200 miles northwest of New York City. It also supplies produce to several other CSAs in New York City and also sells its produce at the Union Square and East Village Greenmarkets. Because Norwich Farm is so far north, they begin to deliver their produce in late June but their 20+ week season is likely to continue into mid-fall, close to Thanksgiving.
I've paid $290 for 20 weeks' worth of vegetables. Enough for two persons for a week (that's $7 a person). What I receive will depend upon the time of year, the weather, and the farm gods that influence what comes out of the ground. But it's likely that in early summer I will get lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, zucchini and beets; in mid-summer lettuce, salad greens, potatoes, chard, cabbage and greens; and in late-summer, more salad greens, tomatoes, carrots, green beans, celery root and arugula.
I've also paid $110 for 20 weeks' worth of fruit -- I've been told to expect tree fruit, berries, and juice. All organic. I've also paid $42 for a dozen eggs, every other week, from chickens on the Norwich Meadow Farm (about $3.80/dozen). I also had the option to buy yogurt, butter and milk from Evans Dairy Farm, honey from Kutiks Honey Farm, cheese from Butternut Coop, organic ground beef from local farms and organic chickens from Norwich Meadow Farm.
To register I had to send a $100 deposit with my full payment due by May 15.
I've promised to volunteer at least 4 hours during the 20+ week season, helping at my neighborhood distribution spot, and each week I get to pick up my food on Thursday afternoons, from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Any food I do not pick up (as in the weeks I may be on vacation) will be given to one of the city's food charities that helps feed New York's hungry.
I love the politics of what I'm doing. But from a cook's perspective, I'm equally excited about the adventure of being handed a box of ingredients once a week and being left to figure out what to do with them. It's the best example of cooking without a net -- fresh, locally grown, in season ingredients.
Isn't what we all really want?
As the summer goes on, I'll keep you posted on how my CSA adventure goes, what I get, what it looks like and the experience of volunteering with other New York City home cooks as we bring our local farms to our dinner tables.