What is a CSA?

Photo of a sample share from  The Urban Canopy  CSA.

Photo of a sample share from The Urban Canopy CSA.

A Mutually beneficial relationship between you and a local farm

When people ask me how I buy so much fresh produce, I love telling them about how I use a CSA!  A CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, is how I get a big box of locally and sustainably grown produce into my kitchen and into my diet.  I pay a fixed amount at the beginning of the growing season, and then every week (or every other week) during the growing season (June 1-mid October for mine), they home deliver vegetables and fruits that have just been picked.  

CSA Overview

Even though a CSA sounds like a subscription model, it's actually a very fundamentally different way of buying vegetables from a farmer.  Instead of exchanging a certain amount of money for a certain amount of produce like you would at a farmers market or grocery story, with a CSA you are technically making an investment in a farm (or buying a "share") and then you are paid out your dividends via a box of produce every week during the growing season.

The initial investment benefits the farmer greatly.  They have cash the the beginning of the season to buy seeds, equipment, and labor.  The CSA also creates a system for shared risk.  If one of the farm's crops doesn't come in (say there is a pest that kills all the tomatoes in the region for that year), the farmer's livelihood (and their ability to continue feeding the rest of us for years to come) is not destroyed.  If something like that happens for a farmer with a CSA, they simply load up our CSA boxes with extra peppers, lettuces, etc that week.  If they were selling directly to a distributor though and had no tomatoes, their income would be decimated. Through a CSA, we spread the potential for devastation among all of us.  This might not be crucial for every industry, but for food, it's vitally important. 

Benefits of joining a CSA

The benefit to the CSA member is often greatly discounted produce compared to the same local produce at a farmer's market.  You are helping the farmer take on risk and agreeing to less customization and therefore get a "deal." 

But really, I'd love to emphasize that while the individual benefits from a CSA are good, the community benefits are greater.  By investing in local farms with sustainable growing practices (versus big agribusinesses and GMO commodity crop farms) we preserve our ability to have choice as consumers, to have nutrient-rich soil, and to have biodiversity and interesting and tasty produce.  (Just think about a grocery store tomato versus a farmer's market one.) 

I 100% realize that these community benefits are something that many people are not in a financial position to think about (heck, I wasn't even able to join a CSA until 2 years ago), but this shift in me--from thinking about the individual to the community--has really changed the way I think about healthy food so I want to put it out there for you too.  I also realize that $40/box of produce for 1-2 weeks is "affordable" if you are used to shopping at stores like Whole Foods, but for others it could be a huge expense.  I don't want anyone to feel shame or judged based on the way that they shop; instead in this post, I just want to introduce you to a wildly different model of exchange that cuts out a lot of the middle men and makes local, nutritious produce available to more people than you might assume (although admittedly not everybody).

Where to find one?

So if you are into the idea of a CSA, how do you find one?  The website Local Harvest has a great tool for looking up CSAs that serve your zipcode across the country.  

Also, next time you are at your city's farmer's market, see if any of the local farms offer one.  Some farms only offer a CSA and some only sell at farmer's markets, but often they do both.  Buying a few items of their produce at the market is a great way to test out if you like both the product and the grower.

What does it include?

Every CSA works a little bit differently so check with the farm that you plan on signing up with or compare a few to see what's the best fit for you.  Typically you'll make your initial investment (or "full-share" in CSA-speak) to get a produce box every week during the growing season.  Many farms also offer a half-share, which is about half the price and means you'll get a box every other week.  

The produce included is incredibly fresh (usually picked only 1-3 days before, meaning it actually has more nutrients like Vitamin C compared to week old produce) and hyper seasonal.  You'll only get produce growing in your region during that particular week, so it can be a great way to experience seasonal items like rhubarb and fresh peas in the spring and incredibly fresh tomatoes in the summer, and unique squashes and root veggies in the fall.

Some CSAs offer home delivery and some do pick-up at a few centralized locations around the city, so you'll want to pick one that works for your schedule too.  CSAs also usually offer other opportunities for engagement like community potlucks or a volunteer day on the farm, as well as emailed resources like recipes and more info about their products and growing practices.

The CSA I use in Chicago

I'm a member of The Urban Canopy CSA program in Chicago.  The Urban Canopy is a Southside farm but they partner with other local growers and producers to offer a more unique subscription that they call a LUCSA (Local Unified CSA).  It includes produce from their farm, along with produce from other local partner farms (particularly berries, apples or things they don't have the space to grow) along with 1 dozen eggs from a local farm, a loaf of bread from a local baker, and a beverage like a bag of locally roasted coffee or a bottle of kombucha. 

They do home delivery on Monday and Tuesday evenings and offer both full and half-shares.  My household of 2 does totally fine with the half-share, which is the same growing season but with delivery every other week.  Even though I cook a lot, it's a lot of produce!  If anyone is interested, this year, they are offering a discount for signups before April 1, 2018.  Full shares are $880 (or $40/box for 22 weeks) and half shares are $462 (or $42/box for 11 weeks).  The photo above is a sample share from the summer.  

CSAs for Meat, Fish, and Flowers

CSAs are not just for produce!  This model has been applied by all kinds of farmers for their products.  Here's some suggested options:

MEAT/DAIRY/EGGS: There couldn't be a bigger difference between the animal products you buy a the grocery store and the ones that are available through a CSA.  I haven't used either of these, but 2 Chicago area options for meat are Mint Creek Farm and Timberfeast (I met them both at the Good Food Expo this year).

FISH: Those of you that have taken my Omega 3 fish class know that I sing the praises of Sitka Salmon Shares, a CSA from a small fishermen's collective in Alaska that does home delivery in Chicago and parts of Illinois.  I've used their fish for events and this year I'm planning on joining the CSA for seasonal salmon and other seafood.  Apparently sometimes your fish is hand-delivered by the fisherman if he's in town!  Use code Alia18 to get $25 off.  

FLOWERS: Sometimes CSAs can include sustainably grown flowers in their shares too.  (Great if you love supporting local farms but don't cook several times a week.)   Sandbox Organics is a produce farm that includes flowers and Avium Flowers is a farm that does a flower-only CSA.  

OTHER PRODUCE CSAS: I love The Urban Canopy but there are many other great local CSAs in the Chicago area and you can find one depending on your preferences.  If Certified Organic is important to you Angelic Organics would be a good choice (They also have an incredible Learning Center with classes and events.)  I've also heard good things about Tomato Mountain Farm.

Photo of Drew, one of the fisherman from Sitka Salmon Shares.

Photo of Drew, one of the fisherman from Sitka Salmon Shares.

What If I can't_____?

Like any service, a CSA isn't for everyone.  Here's a list of a few things you should consider before signing up:

  • IT'S A FULL SEASON COMMITMENT. Sometimes CSA half-shares can accommodate travel schedules (i.e. if you are gone on your normal week, they can deliver the next week) but sometimes they can't and you can choose to give your share to a friend or donate it via the farm.  If you are traveling for a significant part of the growing season (like more than just a weekends or a week or two away), a CSA might not be a good fit for you this year.
  • IT REQUIRES PAYMENT UPFRONT. $40/week for all that local, farm fresh produce might sound like a good deal, but remember, you actually have to pay in full before the season starts so you need the cash on hand.  Some farms (including The Urban Canopy) offer pay-as-you-go options to be inclusive to people at more income levels, but check out the details at your farm.  If you don't see that option listed, don't hesitate to ask, some may even offer a sliding scale (or you could be eligible for donated shares from other members.)  No one likes to be the person asking for help, but those community values are built right into the CSA model so it may actually be the help you are looking for to provide healthy food for your family.
  • YOU NEED TO COOK.  Chances are, if you are here, you either do cook a few times a week or you want more incentives to start cooking!  A CSA is a great way to flex your creative muscles in the kitchen because you get a mixed box of produce each week.  You learn how to substitute, cook seasonally, and cook with veggies you may have never bought at the store.  With the CSAs suggested recipes and the power of Google, I find that it's no big deal, but if you are very uncomfortable making substitutions or really don't have time to cook at least a few times a week, you'll just be seeing your pretty produce spoiling in your fridge.

Any Questions?

I tried to make this post as comprehensive as possible, but I would love to answer any lingering questions you may have about CSAs.  If you have used a CSA (anywhere in the country), please comment below with your experience so we can all learn more about them!

Have you used a CSA before? Tell us about it in the comments!