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The past few weeks, color has started springing up all over the city - white apple blossoms looking like snow-covered treetops, bright yellow daffodils nodding to me as I pass our front flowerbed, and grass finally recovering its green hue after long months of brown and yellow. And when I see all the new blossoms, I can't help getting excited about the start of CSA season.
CSA stands for "community supported agriculture", and last year it transformed our eating habits. If you've never heard of a CSA before, but love farmer's markets and fresh produce, then keep reading - you might just discover your next favorite thing.
A CSA is a partnership between consumers and local farmers. At the beginning of each growing season, the local buyer pays the farmer a lump sum of money, giving them "seed money" (literally) for the farms. In return, the farmer provides shares of produce, meat, and/or eggs on a regular basis throughout the growing season - usually late spring, summer, and early fall. Shares are picked up at the farm, a local farmer's market, or another location arranged between the farmer and consumer.
Last year, we signed up for a group CSA delivery through New Roots for Refugees. New Roots is a program run by Catholic Charities that enrolls newly immigrated refugees to the KC area in a business and farm training program for 3-4 years. While in the program, they take English and business classes, learn to grow sometimes unfamiliar produce in new weather conditions, and receive assistance in navigating their new home and culture. By the end of the program, they are able to set up self-sustaining farming businesses and support their families.
For so many reasons, New Roots completely captured my heart last year. I arranged a group CSA through work, where several shares were delivered once a week to our office. We saw the same family every week - recent ethnic minority refugees from Myanmar. Through the summer, we learned to communicate through broken English, assisted occasionally by the New Roots staff. Bags of fresh spinach, kale, garlic, zucchini, squash, and countless other vegetables, pulled straight from the ground and delivered with specks of dirt still clinging to it. And receiving that food every week transformed the way we thought about and used our food.
1. We learned to eat what was in season.
In most CSAs, you don't get to pick and choose which items you receive in your share. Both you and the farmer are subject to the whims of the weather and season. You won't get pumpkins in May, because it's not their time. It may be a bumper year for tomatoes, which happened to us last year - we made a lot of salsa over the summer. Pests may get into the lettuce, and you may not have so many salads.
We learned that the food we received was directly related to the season we were in, and we adjusted our expectations accordingly. And we found that eating vegetables in season gave us the best, most delicious food we had ever experienced. After you've eaten farm-fresh tomatoes in July, it becomes very difficult to be remotely tempted by bland Roma tomatoes in the grocery store in January.
2. We were directly connected with and investing in the people growing our food.
It's a unique experience to shake the hand of the person who just pulled your potato out of the ground. Our farmers would show up every week, dirt lining the cracks in their fingers and faces darkened by hours in the sun. We became appreciative of the hard work and careful attention they showed in growing our food. And although we may not have known all the particulars of their story, we knew in general that they had left behind a very hard life and were probably still experiencing many new hardships in their new home.
3. We saved a lot of money (and time) on groceries.
It's a practical but very real benefit of a CSA. Buying in bulk and paying in advance meant we spent less money on food and less time shopping throughout the rest of the season. We calculated we spent around $10-15 per week on around $20-30 worth of food received from the farmer. Although the upfront cost can be substantial (varying by farmer, but generally $200-300 for a small family), it's a worthy investment that definitely pays off.
4. It helped us invest in our community.
As mentioned before, our CSA gave us the opportunity to invest in the future of refugee families: giving them income and a means to support themselves long-term; practicing English every week during their deliveries; and learning from them about the produce they grew that was sometimes completely foreign to us - like hairy gourd and Thai eggplant.
Our money wasn't being sent to a multinational corporation sourcing produce from all over the globe. Our money went straight into the pockets of people living just a few miles from us, who would then spend the money in their own communities and use it to invest in the futures of their children, who would then grow up to benefit the community even more. It's an amazing economy where everyone wins.
5. We learned to cook creatively with what we were given.
I am a devoted meal planner. Every week, I sit down with my laptop, cookbooks, and Plan to Eat online meal planning program and figure out what's for dinner. But that changed during last year's harvest season. Instead of planning out my meal schedule and then shopping, I shaped our meal schedule around whatever food showed up in our bag.
I love cooking and I love a challenge, so I enjoyed the process of creating meals out of our weekly shares. We often received things I almost never bought but enjoyed learning how to cook, like eggplant and snap peas. It was always a fun surprise to open up the bag and see what we'd be eating for the next seven days.
We are signing up for two different CSAs. We are continuing our group produce CSA through New Roots for Refugees (although it will be with a new farmer, since last year's farmer graduated from the program!). And we are also signing up for a meat and egg CSA through Farrar Family Farm. Twice a month, we'll meet our farmer on the Plaza and pick up fresh, grass-fed beef and free-range eggs.
If you've thought about signing up for a CSA this year, DO IT. Even if you try it one year and realize it's not for you, a CSA will broaden your perspective on food, culture, and cooking. We had an overwhelmingly positive experience connecting with local farmers, learning to eat with the season, and investing in our community - as well as getting delicious food at low prices.
Below are some links to more information on CSAs, both local and national. If you've ever done a CSA, I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments. What were some of your favorite items you received? And if you haven't ever done it, are you thinking about jumping in?
More information on CSAs
- New Roots for Refugees (Kansas City)
- Farrar Family Farm (Kansas City)
- KC Food Circle (Kansas City) - listing of local organic CSAs
- Cultivate KC (Kansas City) - local nonprofit farming co-op offering CSAs
- Local Harvest - listings of farmers offering CSAs throughout the country
Note: Affiliate link used; full disclosure here.