The Great Grocery Hunt Part 2: CSAs

Written by Eric Brach on 22 February 2012.

Question: Is a CSA the place for my produce?

Answer: Maybe.

For those of you not already familiar, CSA boxes started popping up in America some thirty years ago with their first appearance in rural New England. With some 13,000 CSA farms operating in America since the last count by the USDA, they’ve since grown far more widespread.  No longer do denizens of urban areas and exurbs have to make the binary choice between schlepping out to farmstands or meekly buying whatever’s on sale at the local groceries: nowadays, most cities and exurbs play host to multiple CSA organizations.CSA_bounty

CSA, short for Community Supported Agriculture, is propelled by the notion that people should have another choice for buying their comestibles than just the grocery store – and farmers, too, should have another outlet for selling.  Though of course it makes little economic sense for farmers to run deliveries door-to-door like milkmen of old, what individual farmers and farm co-operatives can do is deliver bulk packages of groceries to groups of buyers through one centralized drop-off.  Everybody wins in this scenario: the farmers get more dollar for their product than they would from high-overhead grocery stores, and buyers get easy access to fresher produce.

At least, that’s the party line. But there are, of course, hurdles. Buyers must be willing and able to receive their groceries at a set time and date, and there’s only limited scalability.  What’s more, there’s next to no opportunity for customization – buyers all get the same thing: whatever the growers have managed to produce.  This has always made me timid about CSAs – what if there’s too much in the box, or not enough? And what if I don’t like what I get?  I cast those doubts aside for the first time in the interest of this investigation.  Was I right do to so? Read on.

As the photo shows, my $13 for half a box (in my case, a paper bag) of fruits and veggies went a reasonably long way.  Upon taking home my food from the local gym – my area’s point of exchange – I opened my package to find about 3/4 of a pound of crimini mushrooms, about a pound and change of Brussels sprouts, two onions, two grapefruits, three heads of broccoli, a bunch of kale, and a pound or so of sweet, half-stemmed carrots.

My reactions to this bounty, along the five categories of judgment I established at the beginning of this month-long adventure, were as follows:

Variety: Relatively good.  I didn’t walk home with 15 pounds of Russet potatoes, which I’d sort of feared. I got green, leafy vegetables; root vegetables; mushrooms; some fruit – all in all, not a bad assortment. Still, I did think two grapefruits was a little light for a week’s worth of non-vegetal produce. Vegetables are much tougher to make a quick snack of than fruits, so I might have liked a more even split.  All in all, though, I was pleased. 7/10.

Selection: Both good and bad. On the one hand, there’s the total lack of choice: by getting a CSA box, you’re by definition handing over your keys to the butler and telling him to use his best judgment, aren’t you?  That said, what I ended up with isn’t so far from what I would have bought for myself – or rather, what the more virtuous version of me would have bought for myself. So I have to give a few points back. 4/10

Healthfulness: Darn good. Largely organic, and with a good assemblage of vitamins and minerals that provide lots of vitamins A, C, and K.  .  There’s an overabundance of green vegetables, though, so despite the nice fiber I’m getting, my color wheel – a clever, visual method for determining if you’re getting a good variety of nutrients – is a little lopsided.  Still, at least I can be relatively secure that I’m not bombarding my liver with pesticides. 8/10

Tastiness: Very strong.  The mushrooms were great – are mushrooms ever not? – and the Brussels sprouts were solid.  The carrots were sweet, the broccoli was fresh and crunchy – especially my favorite (read: odd) part, the stems – and I even quite liked the kale.  I never buy kale myself, because it’s too bitter to eat much of raw, and to cook it, you need to blanch it first in boiling water before you can even figure out what to do with it.  But I cooked it in bacon fat. So of course I thought it was good. Still not gonna buy it myself, though. 10/10

Value for the Money: Excellent.  I’ve spent so long shopping in conventional groceries, that I know that this bag would also cost about $13 in the store, too.  The difference?  This is local (a bit greener for the earth), demi-organic (I don’t know what is and what isn’t, which is frustrating… but I know that some is; or at least, that’s what we’re told), and I didn’t have to spend time going out to get it.  For that, I’m happy.

There ends my assessment of my CSA box – or rather, there almost ends it.  Because part of Value for the Money also includes the unmentionables, the undesirables: the inedibles.  So how much is left of this CSA box at the end of the week?  How much did I get that I didn’t want?

As you can see, not much.  Just two grapefruits and two onions.  This comes as a bit of a surprise, given that I love citrus and I tend to use onions in just about everything I cook.  Of course, citrus isn’t that portable – yes, it’s got a skin, but it’s messy to open and eat, so it’s really more of an at-home snack for me than an on-the-go. Still, while I do have about a quarter of my bag left, both grapefruit and onions have quite a bit of shelf life, and I know that I’ll use them both soon. 9/10.

Overall score: 8/10. If you don’t mind ceding total grocery control, a CSA may be right for you – on most other notes, it hits.

Next week: the conventional grocery store.

Dig Deeper:

Other blog posts on this topic:

The Great Grocery Search




0 #1 Rebecca 2012-02-22 11:57
Love this post - I think you'll find that the variety picks up a lot in the summer. Our CSA is always overflowing in July and August.

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