A friend recently texted me a photo of her countertop. It was filled with produce; two giant bulbs of fennel (feathery fronds still attached, much like the plumage of a peacock), three heads of broccoli, two bunches of radishes, two bunches of carrots, garlic, mustard greens, lettuce, peas, baby kale, raspberries. It was her weekly CSA allotment and the photo came along with the words “how am I going to fit it all in the fridge?”
This friend of mine, like many, is experiencing her first summer as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) member, meaning she gets a box of produce from a local farm every week, although some farms offer a biweekly option. According to Anna Chotzen, the business and marketing manager for Viva Farms, CSAs started “as a way for a community to share in the risk of farming.”
“You’re committing to walk with [a farmer] throughout the whole season,” Chotzen says.
Viva Farms works with aspiring farmers who have limited resources by providing land, equipment and infrastructure at two locations in Skagit County and one in King County. Their CSA, which is in its fourth year, fills their weekly box with produce from all their partner farmers.
CSAs aren’t a new idea — but when COVID-19 began to take hold in the Seattle area in early spring, many people grew concerned about supply chains, the potential disappearance of farmers markets and the ability to get local produce. The option of a weekly box of fresh, locally grown produce delivered to an easy, central location for pickup seemed like the perfect solution.
Chotzen says the CSA program at Viva has grown each year, and that this year they topped out at 375 members, well beyond their goal.
“I think some of it had to do with COVID-19. It’s hard to track but we have definitely had customers reach out to us saying they were interested in getting access to local produce,” she says.
As easy as it sounds, being a CSA member isn’t like going to the grocery store or even the farmers market, and eating from a CSA box can quickly go from feeling like a wonderful idea to a wasteful one.
When it comes to eating from a CSA box, I’m reminded of the phrase “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” It might mean you get way too much lettuce and never enough berries. You could wind up with garlic scapes and have zero clue what to do with them. It might mean a total shift in your way of cooking — and it might mean you throw in the towel halfway through the season.
All of it is fine. Here’s how not to panic.
First, remember why you signed up in the first place. There was some part of you willing to commit to eating more vegetables. That might mean just adding an extra handful to every single dish you cook, or eating more salads than you once thought possible.
Still, to set yourself up for success, try to get in the habit of checking your email before even grabbing your box on your designated pickup day. Newsletters detailing the weekly box contents plus tips for storage and recipes are standard from any farm, so you’ll get an idea of what’s coming your way and how best to prepare.
Amy Frye, co-owner of Boldly Grown Farm in Mount Vernon, says that the CSA way of eating is a “relearning for some people.”
“It requires more flexibility. Sometimes we’ll send out a recipe that relates but the quantity might not match. It’s understanding to read a recipe as a guideline, not a rule,” Frye says.
Knowing what’s coming will best set you up to fill any holes you might have in achieving mealtime success for the rest of the week.
Sure, some things are the same. Just like when you get home from the grocery store or farmers market, it’s important to sort through your box immediately after you get it.
“The products we have are really fresh, harvested either that morning of pickup or the day before. They last longer than what you would find in the grocery store, but still the sooner you get your product in the refrigerator the better,” Chotzen says.
Eat things like berries immediately; think about freezing anything you might not be able to use before it goes bad.
Then, remember that flexibility is key. Collard greens can be used almost interchangeably with kale or cabbage, while chard can be used instead of spinach. Any strong flavor — like fennel or radish — mellows and sweetens when roasted.
Break out of a salad rut by switching up your dressing. Follow a general guideline of three parts oil to one part vinegar, adding mustard, fresh herbs or citrus to further deepen flavors.
If all else fails and you’re looking at your box in despair, phone a friend who might be interested in taking some produce off your hands.
Above all, Frye says to give yourself some grace.
“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s learning to adjust your eating patterns and your meal planning,” she says. “It takes time to break out of that mold.”