Community Supported Agriculture - The Season Begins

Community Supported Agriculture - The Season Begins

Last Saturday I sat a few rows behind a toddler standing on her seat on the M57 cross-town bus. She strained to look out the window as her mother held her safely in place. The bus was slowly crawling west along 57th Street through midtown traffic and the little girl was ready for lunch. "McDonald's!" she kept screaming and her mother alternated between trying to shush her daughter and counting down how many blocks there were to go. "McDonald's! McDonald's!" The chant continued until the bus neared 6th Avenue, where for many years there had been an urban yellow arch. The little girl was coached to ring for the bus to stop, her mother clearly relieved to tell her daughter that they had nearly arrived.

But as the bus crossed the intersection, Mom saw that the McD's was boarded shut. It had recently closed, happy news to a neighborhood tired of the constant smell of cooked grease. But on that M57 there was no relief. As the little girl's screams multiplied, I got off the bus with a last glance at the mother trying to explain to her chicken McNugget-obsessed child that she'd have to have something else for lunch. That was not a settlement I'd want to negotiate.

I'm not going to do a rant about McDonald's and the tragedy of children whose parents take them there because it's just too easy a target. But while captive on that bus, as I listened to that little girl's cravings, I also thought about an equally serious food problem facing our country and that's the repercussions from the recent floods in the Midwest. Anyone who eats fast food, processed food, packaged food -- almost anything that comes out of the big machine known as agribusiness -- should start anticipating higher prices and shortages. As if our food prices weren't already high enough.

Millions of acres and billions of dollars of corn and soybean crops have been destroyed. The impact on our food supply is enormous: besides the ingredients that go into mass market and processed foods (think about everything that's made with corn syrup), we've lost growing seasons at both small family and industrial farms, plus much of the corn that's fed to livestock (watch U.S. prime and choice steak prices soon rise). In a tragic example of how our environment is so inter-dependent, when the fertilizer-enriched top soil from millions of acres of cornfields gets flooded into the Mississippi and its tributaries, the hydrogen in the fertilizer is washed into the river waters, soon to travel the length of the great Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico where it will settle and create dead zones where no fish or sea life can exist.

Besides the tragedy for all those who lost their homes, their farms, their livelihoods, their towns across Iowa, Missouri and other parts of the Midwest, these floods are tragedies for our food supply. We're all going to feel the impact on our fragile eco- and agri-systems. This makes me even more appreciative of the growing success of New York's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

Mine began last week.

The Start of the CSA Season in New York City

I've read about CSAs for years but I've only understood them in principle, not in practice. After spending some time this spring with at JustFood.org's web site, I decided to join the Columbus Circle CSA and share my experiences with TheCityCook.com.

It was easy to download an application, print it, fill it out and mail it with my check for $444.00. Before choosing my shares I had a few questions (such as how much food is this going to be and should I buy a whole or a half share) and our coordinator was both fast and friendly in getting me all the information I needed to make my decisions. I bought a full-share of vegetables, a half-share of fruit and a half-share of eggs (meaning a dozen every other week). I could have also purchased yogurt, honey, granola and poultry. But being new to all this, I thought I'd start with what I was sure I would like and could handle.

You pay in advance so that the farmers get their income at the start of the season, when they need it most urgently. In return we get 20 weeks of fresh, locally grown and organic food so while I had to write a serious check at the start of the summer, I'm expecting to get most of my fruits and vegetables right through to Thanksgiving, making it a good value if you consider the $22.20 weekly cost. Our coordinator has made an effort to manage our expectations: the season has a light beginning with lettuces, squash, herbs and other early vegetables; but as the season goes on, the variety and quantity will increase. I've heard predictions of 10-pound bags of tomatoes and won't that be great.

A nice surprise is that a day or two before our pick-up we're given a prediction of what's in that week's, a big help in terms of menu planning and buying other ingredients for daily meals.

In addition to paying for our food, when we become a CSA member we agree to also be a volunteer; in a system that very similar to a food coop, each of us must work at least 4 hours over the entire season, a small effort for such a big payoff. The volunteer jobs include meeting the delivery truck, working a 2-hour shift during the collection hours to help everyone get their food, helping the coordinator with computer and administrative work, and other tasks that need to be done to get the food from our farmer to every subscriber.

A Farm Grows on 58th Street

This is the third year for the Columbus Circle CSA and it was sold out with 97 of us buying subscriptions. Every Thursday afternoon we go to a depot location -- ours is on West 58th Street near 6th Avenue -- to pick up our weekly share of fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy, poultry and more -- all organic and mostly from Norwich Meadows Farm's 35 acres in Norwich, New York. Norwich Meadows Farm also supplies several other NYC CSAs plus they sell its produce at the Union Square, Tompkins Square, and Stuyvesant Square Park Greenmarkets.

At around noon last Thursday, a truck pulled up in front of a small apartment building on West 58th Street. Four CSA member volunteers quickly offloaded that day's delivery -- before the truck got a ticket -- and brought the crates of produce into the building. There's a small lobby with a doubting doorman (whom I strongly suspect neither cooks nor eats vegetables), with a side door leading to a narrow, metal staircase that takes us down to a back garden area. "Garden" is a bit of an overstatement as the area is fully shadowed by the adjacent back walls of West 57th Street towers. There's something secretive about being in the space; as if we're meeting our dealer and scoring some illicit goods. Given the state of our food supply, that might not be so far off.

But we're grateful to have the perfectly workable space, loaned to the CSA by the person whose apartment fronts onto it. The volunteers stack up the crates, separating each type of fruit or vegetable into their own area. There's a table with a sign-in sheet, two large kitchen scales and a large pile of recycled plastic supermarket bags. The feeling is very similar to an outdoor greenmarket. Next week there will also be a refrigerator where the perishable items, especially poultry and dairy products, will be stored.

The mid-day volunteers finish their tasks in about 30 minutes and their jobs are done. Later in the day, from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., all the participants can come by to pick up our share of the week's shipment. Rain or shine this will be the schedule from now through the end of October or early November when the farm's crops are finished. If you're on vacation or miss a pick-up, your share gets given to a neighborhood soup kitchen.

Our spirited coordinator reminded us repeatedly in emails leading up to our first delivery that we must bring our own bags to carry our items home. Knowing it wouldn't have occurred to us new folks to bring small plastic bags or containers to hold items like baby greens or herbs, she's brought the supermarket bags as a safety. I'm one of the many who's appreciative and next week I'll know better -- be prepared for small stuff.

The day before our first delivery we received an email telling us what to expect we'll get and when arriving at our depot, a white board confirms the order. It's still early summer as far as New York farms are concerned and so it's not surprising that the range and quantity of our first vegetables is rather modest:

All of the ingredients were easy to move into my week's cooking, with the exception of the garlic scapes which I had never heard of before this summer and now seem to be everywhere. Garlic scapes are a part of the garlic plant that farmers cut off to encourage the plant to grow. Once discarded, farmers now sell them as an adventuresome new ingredient with really wonderful flavor. Milder than a garlic clove, the scape looks like a long, pale green bean. Diced and added to a dip or a pesto they add a subtle garlic taste; roast them and the flavor pales even more. Last week's New York Times had an entire article, along with recipes, devoted to ways to cook scapes, spring garlic and other lesser known forms of the pungent plant.

I've taken a favorite roasted asparagus pesto, originally from Johanne Killeen and George Germon's splendid On Top of Spaghetti cookbook and adapted it by adding garlic scapes. See our link for the recipe.

Back at our first CSA weekly pick-up, we're still all strangers to one another so there's little chatter and voices are low, perhaps due to the space we're in, right outside others' apartments. But maybe it's also because of the appreciation of what we've just begun. We weigh our own shares, pack our bags, and leave. But an on-line community support system is in place and evolving. We've got a Google group with discussions about recipes, what we're eating, and how to use the lesser known ingredients like purslane or variety with those more common, like cabbage. The posts already show that many of the members are creative and serious home cooks and up to the task to invent meals around whatever comes on the truck that week.

It's a wonder to me that the farm has come to the city in such an easy, collaborative and affordable way and I look forward to each week's rich surprise. That little girl on the M57 bus doesn't know what she's missing!

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