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The Pros and Cons of Joining a CSA

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The spring harvest is upon us, and in many communities, it's the last call to sign up for a CSA for the full growing season. An acronym for Community Supported Agriculture, CSA commonly refers to a group whose members receive weekly shares of food from a certain farm (or groups of farms) in their region. Each member is supporting their local agriculture, essentially, not through a retailer or market but directly, and at pop-up community locations to serve the pickup times such as schools, parks, or friendly neighborhood bars.

Being in a CSA is a commitment, and you can't just swoop in to pick out your produce without signing up first. Fortunately, the number of CSAs has grown rapidly over the last few years, and in New York City alone, there are a total of 110 individual groups spanning several neighborhoods. According to Paula Lukats, the CSA in NYC Programmer at the nonprofit organization Just Food, that number has grown from just one CSA in 1995, when the program began. "The growth of the CSA movement is exciting because it means that more local small scale farmers can stay on their land, and more New Yorkers have access to the freshest, highest quality produce," said Lukats.

But before making the leap and joining one, consider whether the program is right for you. There are many pros and cons to weigh, and the summer can be an unexpected time - for you and that farm. Here's a handy list of pros and cons about CSA as opposed to other modes of food-shopping.

Pro: You're supporting a specific local farm sans middleman.

Most CSA groups receive all their produce from one farm, with often an option to buy additional shares for eggs, meat, fruit or cheese, all from one farm to each category. This gives you a window into a typical growing season for a small, often family-run farm business. Many CSAs will organize a group trip to visit their principle farm, and you'll often get to meet the farm's staff during pickup. But moreover, your contribution means a lot to the farm's financial security, which can be so fragile and vulnerable to chance (weather conditions, slow days at the farmers market, etc.). By paying up front, you're ensuring them sales throughout the season.

Con: You're limited to that farm.

And what if that farm gets tomato blight? Or seems to have a problem with small insects biting lacelike holes in Swiss chard leaves? Maybe you just don't care for their bumper crop of kohlrabi, or wish there were more cucumbers. Unfortunately, you're beholden to the offerings that the farm sets aside for your shares.

Pro: The food is fresh.

This is farm-to-table food in realtime: typically harvested just before pickup, as soon as the growing season starts. No hanging around on grocery store aisles, or lingering in market bins for longer than the three-or-four-hour time slot of your pickup. Your leafy greens will stay fresh longer, because they're fresher to begin with, and summer fruits and tomatoes can be picked once they're ripe and at peak flavor, because they're getting to you right away.

Con: You must be ready to use it.

Do you ever stash away perishables in your fridge and forget about them? If you don't eat your shares within a week, you'll be backlogged with stashes of stuff sooner than you know - and some will get wasted. Joining a CSA is also a commitment to cook, and if you eat out a lot and want to continue to, a CSA may not be for you. I repeat, it's not for people who eat out a lot. But there are clever ways you can get around this challenge of overabundance: you can split a share with a friend, and alternate weeks to pick up. Some members have gotten a juicer in order to get all their farm-fresh food down the hatch, quick and simple. Or, my favorite solution: entertain more.

Pro: It's inexpensive.

A typical single share of produce in New York City costs around $300-$400 and runs from June to the end of October, so it's roughly $12-$18 per week. While they differ throughout the season, the bundle typically contains at least four or more different vegetable varieties - for instance, a pound of eggplant, two pounds of zucchini, a pint of potatoes, a bunch of arugula, a bunch of mint. Scouting the same items in a farmers market will quickly add up to more than your weekly installment plan. Additionally, some CSAs might offer sliding-scale prices for lower-income families, an effort that Just Food has been trying to further in NYC.

Con: You have to spend it all at once.

And you might miss a pickup here and there. Unfortunately, there is no refund for missed weeks at most CSAs, so if your schedule is unpredictable, you could lose out a lot. Appoint a neighbor or friend to take produce in your place, especially if you're away on vacation - they don't have to show ID to eat your food. They'll owe you a drink - or dinner party - next time.

Pro: It's interactive.

A CSA runs like a co-op, where at many, there's a required volunteer shift or two. There's also the opportunity to be more involved, like organizing a group potluck, suggesting improvements to pickup, etc. These are unique advantages if you're interested in being more active in a good food cause, and you'll get to chat with your neighbors and meet many of them during pick-up times.

Con: There are requirements.

Some CSAs actually don't require your volunteer work, but you should be prepared for this request. It's a time commitment, but it lowers the administrative cost of the CSA for everyone. Because of the community-run nature, you might also experience gaffes or slip-ups, such as someone not showing up to their shift or abuse of the reply-all email chain. But if you, and everyone, pitches in, the ship will run much smoother.

Pro: There are fun surprises.

Do you delight in coming across heirloom produce that you never even knew existed? Do you want to brag about your garlic scapes, flowering spring greens, and other exotica that you can't really find in conventional grocery stores? Then joining a CSA and siding with a small, unique farm that typically serves them is just right for you! You won't always know what foods the season will bring you, and that's exciting, especially when something that you might never have been compelled to buy before becomes a new favorite in your kitchen. It happens all the time.

Con: It's unexpected.

Playing Iron chef week by week is not for everyone. What do I do with napa cabbage? How am I supposed to use up all these chiogga beets? Well, you'll have to accept the unexpected that each week's round of food confronts you with. Let the suspense begin!

About the author: Cathy Erway is the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. She blogs at NotEatingOutinNewYork.com and hosts the weekly podcast on Heritage Radio Network, Eat Your Words.

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