Cast aside your clichéd notions of hemp-wearing hippies or tree-hugging vegans searching for new ways to prepare tofu. If some of the folks milling about at Elizabeth Annas Old World Garden in Fort Worth on a September Saturday like to eat organic green sprouts, well, its mostly because theyre in season and they taste really good on a turkey sandwich with a smear of spicy mustard.
Just ask Zoe Pierce, a fitness instructor in Fort Worth who hardly considers herself some kind of food fascist. (For one thing, she allows her 14-year-old son to take after-school jaunts to Taco Bell, so long as he eats a healthy dinner.) Pierce tells a common story of what happened when she started regularly eating farm-grown, locally sourced vegetables. I didnt know salad could taste so good, she says.
Or you can ask Jacqueline Banks, a health counselor in Benbrook who recently relocated from New York. In 2007, she was told by doctors that she might never be able to have children and so, she decided to place a renewed focus on nutrition and eating organically. She now has a 2-year-old daughter named Annabelle, who joins mom on her weekly trips to purchase fresh farm eggs. She doesnt get anything thats been treated with pesticide, Banks says of Annabelle.
Pierce and Banks are part of a growing wave of participants in CSA, or community-supported agriculture, a movement that seems to be attracting young professionals and retirees, single people and married couples, at just about every rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
Participants buy shares in local farmers crops. For either a seasonal or weekly fee, depending on the rules of the individual CSA, they are given a basket of newly harvested, organic vegetables that the growers say are vastly healthier and taste better than anything to be found at the grocery store. Shareholders dont get to choose which vegetables they want, but instead accept whatever the farmer happens to have just harvested.
And as you watch the CSA shareholders at Elizabeth Annas, their black baskets stocked with purple cabbage, yellow onions, red peppers, watermelon and, yes, those crunchy, scrumptious sprouts, looking happy and healthy and eager to get home and start cooking their bounty, you cant help but wonder:
What do these folks know that the rest of us dont?
And can their approach to eating catch on, changing the way we all think about our food?
CSAs are hardly a new phenomenon in the United States. The first one was formed in the mid-1980s, at Indian Line Farm in Great Barrington, Mass., by a group of farmers inspired by similar practices in Europe. Like a lot of modern CSA farmers, these early adopters werent necessarily political activists, but they resisted corporate culture and the overmechanized way of modern life. They also wanted to strengthen their community and help create a hyperlocal economy, where consumers knew and interacted with food producers, and vice versa.
The CSA trend grew slowly throughout the 1990s, particularly in places with a strong farmers market tradition, like Oregon and California. Yet it wasnt until the mid-2000s that CSAs began to multiply. That was when books like Eric Schlossers Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollans The Omnivores Dilemma, and documentaries like Food Inc. started raising troubling questions about the safety and possible toxicity of the food supply chain in the United States, and when television shows like Top Chef and From Farm to Table began extolling cooking that used locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.
Suddenly eating sustainably was every bit as trendy as a box of Betty Crocker cake mix would have been back in the 1950s.
There are now upward of 2,300 CSAs in the United States, up from about 600 in the late 1990s, according to Christine Mayer of the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources at Wilson College in Pennsylvania.
Weve known this stuff for a long, long time that we should eat what we grow and support our farms and we have lived this way with gardens in the back yard, says Mayer. So its been very exciting to see people coming back to that way of thinking.
She adds, Im just sorry it took such drastic things like Food Inc. to get them to think about it.
Its a similar story to the one recounted by James and Elizabeth Samudio, owners of Elizabeth Annas Old World Garden and the organizers of a 60-member CSA.
In 2002, they bought a lot along Eighth Avenue in Fort Worths Fairmount neighborhood, launched a gardening and landscaping business, and began growing fruits and vegetables on the property. A battle with cancer only strengthened Elizabeths resolve to control the food entering her body. In January 2006, eager to share their growing knowledge of organic urban farming, they decided to host a seminar and posted a few flyers around town to promote it. They were expecting a dozen or so folks to attend. More than 90 people turned up, even though it was an outdoor event on a cold night in January.
I asked them, How many of you have organic gardening experience? Elizabeth Samudio recalls. Not one person raised their hand. But there was a hunger for this sort of information.
The couple launched their CSA in 2012, using fruits, vegetables and herbs from their own garden, and supplementing it with produce from a handful of nearby farmers. A number of other CSAs in the area also began launching around the same time although a little bit behind the national curve, North Texas was finally catching up. Exact numbers can be hard to determine shares are often sold via word-of-mouth, and some farmers will suspend their CSAs if their crops are disappointing but there are probably now about a dozen operating in the North Texas region (see sidebar).
Whereas CSAs usually require participants to buy a share that lasts for a set number of weeks (and forfeit a share if they cant make it to the pick-up site that week), the Samudios charge a once-a-year administration fee ($50) and basket fee ($12), but dont require you to commit to purchasing a share every week. Each weeks share will cost $35 or $50, depending on the size of your basket.
And while the weekly basket on a recent Saturday contained mostly familiar fare green peppers, watermelon, a lonely late-summer tomato the Samudios have recently planted sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, arugula and figs, all of which should be ready in the coming months. If you dont know what the heck youre supposed to do with something you find in your basket, or you still havent figured out the difference between kale and Swiss chard and bok choy, the Samudios will happily provide recipes.
Its mostly been vegetables we like so far, says Lindsay Montgomery, a 20-something who joined the Elizabeth Anna share over the summer. But I think its been making us cook and eat more, because you dont want the food to go to waste.
Many of the farms that offer CSAs also take their produce to local farmers markets. Check out a brief guide to some of DFWs farmers markets. Confused about what to do with some of your more off-the-beaten-path CSA veggies? This Buzzfeed piece shows you 31 things to do with them.
There are numerous compelling reasons why even someone with just a passing interest in food would want to sign up for a CSA. For one thing, most will agree that the food tastes better because it hasnt been grown in a greenhouse, because its harvested closer to when its actually ripe and because it hasnt been carted halfway across the country or the globe to find its place on your local supermarket shelf.
For another, CSAs reduce the number of people and machines handling your food, meaning its much less likely you will run into problems with bacteria or contamination.
There is also the simple pleasure of knowing you are living a more locally focused, eco-friendly existence. Indeed, in an increasingly impersonalized, machine- and big business-driven world, its little wonder that sustainable has become such a buzz word.
Still, are CSAs really capable of taking root and succeeding on a large scale, much less eventually giving large grocery store chains a run for their money?
Even the CSA movements most vigorous champions admit thats probably a bit of a pipe dream. Part of the problem is that ours remains a culture of convenience and choice we want a tomato when we want it, not necessarily when its in season, and we want the vegetables we like, not necessarily the broccoli or cauliflower a farmer has on hand. Another issue is that we tend to eat partly with our eyes, and weve all been conditioned to think the shiny, perfectly round vegetables we encounter in produce bins are the ones we should be eating.
At her CSA in Pennsylvania, Christine Mayer says that even the most food-savvy shareholders often slip into this way of thinking. Were continually having to re-educate them and remind them, she says. When they dont get their carrot scrubbed clean, or if we have a beetle on some bok choy, we get complaints about that. But would you rather that, or vegetables treated with pesticide?
Theres also the matter of cost and the fact that, in a still-tight economy, many simply cant afford the a CSA. For comparisons sake, I visited both Sprouts and Kroger, to see how much the same quantity of vegetables contained in an Elizabeth Anna share would cost me at a grocery store. At Sprouts, the nonorganic equivalents cost about $12 total, and at Kroger the organic equivalents added up to about $21 notably less than the $35 for a CSA share basket.
Its an issue that most CSA farmers are conscious of, especially as it relates to lower-income families, who often turn to cheaper processed and fast foods instead of eating fresh fruits and vegetables because of the cost. Indeed, theres no denying a widespread perception that organic eating is for the same people who dine out at $30-a-plate restaurants like Ellerbe Fine Foods or purchase their cookware at Williams-Sonoma i.e., people with the means and the time to seek out the best food they can find.
I think theres a lot of dialogue about that, and I think that there are not a lot of easy answers, says Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming and CSAs. Barnett notes that many farmers are lobbying to change the rules on food stamps, and allow them to be used for the purchase of CSA shares.
For his part, James Samudio says he regularly gives shares to CSA members who are struggling financially. But he also thinks people need to change their long-held ideas about how much food should cost and weigh that against the benefits of eating a healthier diet.
The people who joined our CSA are coming back each week, and they are eating seasonally and losing weight and feeling better, he says. You cant put a price ceiling on that.
Finally, theres an unavoidable political dimension to all this, and the question of how popular CSAs can become before they start to experience pushback from corporate and government interests. For years, CSAs have mostly flown under the radar, which has meant there are very few federal, state or local laws around the country dictating how they can be run. But small organic farmers fear that might change, especially if corporate farms feel their bottom lines are being threatened. (Just last week, California passed a statewide registration program for CSAs.)
Right now Im in the middle of writing a newsletter about the proposed regulations on organic eggs, says LocalHarvests Erin Barnett, about a Food and Drug Administration proposal that would require outdoor chicken flocks to be isolated from birds and wildlife. These new rules are very clearly being influenced by the huge egg producers, and they really undermine the spirit of organic farming.
The basket in practice
Its one thing to talk about CSAs in theory; in order to truly understand the movement, James Samudio insisted upon sending me home with a share basket, so I could see how this all worked in practice.
Id already explained to Samudio that, like a lot of his CSA members, Ive been paying closer attention to eating organically in recent years, and that, during the summer, I try to eat as much as possible from the food grown in our backyard garden. Yet as much as I love my veggies, Ive resisted signing up for a CSA for all the common reasons cost, convenience, a possibly pathological distaste for broccoli.
I cant say that everything in the basket was packed with mind-blowing flavor. Frankly, I found the string beans a little bland, and the watermelon, while crisp and brightly colored, might have been sweeter. But for three consecutive evenings, I put together dinners almost exclusively using ingredients found in my basket: a dish of grilled potatoes and onions (topped with chives from my own garden), a coleslaw from the purple cabbage, a salad of romaine lettuce and tomatoes.
And while flavor is notoriously tricky to describe, the vegetables somehow tasted richer, cleaner, punchier than any of our store-bought equivalents. Suddenly my partner and I were talking about signing up for a share, because $35 for three exceedingly tasty meals didnt seem like a bad deal at all.
Were missionaries, James Samudio told me when I first met him. Were trying to make people see that they can live like this and eat like this.
One organic vegetable and one stomach at a time.