Many wonderful things come with the onset of spring. Those who have gardens are probably planning what to plant, dreaming of a bounty of produce that they’ll chop, eat, freeze or can throughout the summer. Others are anticipating all the new, seasonal produce at farmers markets: peas, spring onions, spring greens, asparagus, and eventually, tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes. And you are researching ways to make the most of your CSA share.
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a concept that began about 25 years ago as a way for communities to support local farms in a systematic way.
Farms sell shares of their harvest to customers. In return customers receive weekly allotments of produce, but sometimes also meat, dairy, eggs, or honey.
This is good for farmers because the cash flow allows them to plan better over the year. Getting the money up-front means they have to do less marketing during the months when they need to spend time in the field.
And it’s good for customers because we get to
- support the local economy,
- help the environment by buying goods that are not industrially produced and shipped, and
- enjoy fresh, seasonal produce that inspires us to eat more creative, nutritious salads.
Subscribing to a CSA share is not for everyone. Food waste from unused CSA boxes is one of the reasons why people are hesitant about signing up and why they don’t renew. If you throw a lot of produce away already, subscribing to a CSA share is not going to magically make you start making more salad and using your produce. In fact, it may make matters worse, since your box could include vegetables you’re not used to eating and unsure about preparing.
What are some of the ways to make the most of your CSA share? Read on to decide whether a CSA share is for you and how you can be sure to use your CSA share if you decide to invest.
Ways to make the most of your CSA: Think ahead
Before signing up, think about your cooking and food preparation habits.
Do you enjoy cooking? Do you prepare most of your food at home? Are you a salad lover hoping to add to your already well-established repertoire? Are you looking for ways to get out of your vegetable rut and support local farmers at the same time?
If you answered yes to these questions, you’re probably a great candidate for a CSA share, because you’ve already built your life around preparing and eating fresh produce on a regular basis. If you don’t prepare a lot of food at home, subscribing to a weekly box of produce is not going to magically result in behavior change.
Also consider your schedule during the months that you’ll receive your CSA box. If you’re going to be unusually busy or out of town a lot, it may not be a good fit.
Ways to make the most of your CSA: Do your research
Every farm’s CSA share is a little different. The variety of produce you receive will depend a lot on the size of the farm and how long it’s been in business.
Many farms provide a list online of typical items in their share. Some even have newsletters or blogs for their customers that include recipes. Check out Local Harvest, a site that provides a directory of thousands of CSA farms or do a simple internet search to find more information about farms in your area. Farmer’s markets and local associations may also have information about participating farms in your area.
When choosing a CSA share, also consider cost, size of the share, pick-up times and locations, and the terms and conditions.
Popular CSA shares sell out early in the season, so February and March (now!) are are good times to do your research and sign up.
Ways to make the most of your CSA: Eat in season
Purchasing produce from local growers means you will receive vegetables and fruits as they are harvested.
If you are used to shopping at supermarkets that sell many types of produce year-round, you may find it challenging at first to work with less flexibility. For example, you may not start seeing tomatoes in your box until late June. Lettuce is typically abundant early in the season, less so in the fall when you may see more hearty greens.
You can always supplement with items from the supermarket, but if your goal is to use up your box, know what to expect based on the time of season.
Get out of your produce comfort-zone. You don’t have to have tomatoes to have a great salad; kale and spinach can easily stand in for lettuce.
Ways to make the most of your CSA: Get creative
The opportunity to try a variety of different and interesting vegetables is one of the great joys of subscribing to a CSA share. This is the time to get creative with kohlrabi, turnips, daikon radish, watercress, chicory or other produce that’s not in your typical supermarket haul.
Most vegetables you receive in a CSA box are delicious right out of the box, washed, chopped and tossed in a salad.
Try flash pickling roots or shredding hearty greens to add different tastes and textures to your salads.
Ways to make the most of your CSA: Supplement with staples
Your CSA is obviously not going to sustain all of your meals for an entire week. But you also don’t necessarily have to run to the supermarket every time you get a new box just to round out your meals. Keeping a few pantry staples on hand means you have many recipes ready to go at your fingertips: just add produce.
We usually keep a good stock of dried beans like black beans, garbanzos, and lentils that we can easily cook in our Instant Pot, along with grains like quinoa, brown rice, and bulgur. Cook up a couple batches of your favorite beans and grains to have on hand when your produce arrives, and whip up a dressing with olive oil, vinegar, and spices from your pantry.
Instant salad. No supermarket necessary.
Ways to make the most of your CSA: Use storage bags to keep your produce fresh
A few weeks ago, at our local natural foods chain supermarket, we discovered Peak Fresh re-usable produce bags that supposedly keep produce fresher for longer in the refrigerator. We always feel guilty buying more plastic stuff, but we thought if we could commit ourselves to re-using these bags, it would be okay. Plus, we feel even more guilty throwing away forgotten produce, so we bought a box. We haven’t even had a chance to reuse them, because they work so well.
The produce we stored in the bags a few weeks ago looks just as fresh as the day we bought it. The bags supposedly breathe, which allows damaging ethylene gas the veggies produce to escape. These bags will help your CSA produce last longer, so you throw away less.
But remember, it’s actually better to eat your veggies.
Ways to make the most of your CSA: Pickle it, just a little bit
Whoever said pickled or fermented foods don’t belong in salad doesn’t know salad. If you’re skeptical, take a look at our Cauliflower Shawarma Salad recipe and the beautiful pink, pickled turnips.
Pickling is the process of using a vinegar brine to preserve vegetables; fermenting is the process of using a salt brine or culture to preserve vegetables. If done properly, pickled vegetables can be preserved in the jar so they don’t have to be refrigerated. Preserving picked vegetables involves some equipment and cooking.
Fermenting vegetables involves using natural probiotics to “pickle” the vegetables. These natural probiotics are said to be good for you. It doesn’t take as much equipment but can take a lot more time. You should store fermented foods in the refrigerator rather than cooking them.
Ways to make the most of your CSA: Make-ahead salads for weekday lunches
We love spending our Sunday afternoons making salad.
We work at day jobs all week, which makes for little time between Monday 8 a.m. and Friday 5 p.m. for making salad. Sad, but true.
A little prep on the weekend means more time for salad eating during the week.
If you subscribe to a CSA share, you’ll want to plan ahead to you use your produce throughout the week. A salad a day is a great way to do that. All of our salad recipes can be prepared ahead of time and last for up to 5 days in the fridge if you store the dressing separately.
A CSA share may seem like a big investment, but we’ve found several in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area that cost about $23 per week. Given what we spend on food on a weekly basis, that seems economical. Not to mention, someone’s doing the shopping for us!
Just make sure you know the best ways to make the most of your CSA share and have a plan for using your produce so all of your potential salads don’t end up in the compost.
Have you ever purchased a CSA share? How did you make sure you used up your weekly produce?
Disclosure: The Salad Lobby earns a commission for purchases made through links in this article, at no extra cost to you.