I don’t remember the first time that I heard about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Having grown up in a small town, the idea of buying local fresh produce seems only natural, but I am certain that CSA is fairly new to my vernacular. Vegetable stands in the summer and fall are commonplace here in Central PA. Every summer my mother would take us on “adventures” that often culminated with stopping at fruit and vegetable stands where we would purchase fresh sweet corn and tomatoes. We would take our prizes home for dinner. The twins would savor their tomato and mayo sandwiches on white bread like little kings. I would devour ear after ear of corn covered in butter, salt, and pepper. Later mom would admit that these “adventures” were due to the heat. Our house was not air conditioned, but the car was. We would drive and see the beefalo, which we thought were hilarious with their shaggy coats and long horns. We would laugh as mother drove slowly passed their grazing fields; our noses pressed to the glass of the backseat window.
My grandpa frequently drove to Carlisle to visit the military base and to shop at the commissary. He enjoyed our company and would often take me or the boys with him. On the way home we would always stop at the orchards and buy fruit. Memories of sticky peach juice dripping down my chin and through my fingers remain firmly planted in my mind and serve as a happy reminder of our relationship and the sweetness of summer.
My grandparents’ backyard had several fruit trees and we would pick apples and pears for canning and grandma’s pies. We built tree houses in those trees and swung from their branches. We would walk barefoot through the fallen mulberries and our feet would be stained purple with their juices for weeks. We would wander along the hedgerow in search of wild raspberries; always going together, mindful of the dangers of sinkholes and imaginary monsters lurking behind the bushes.
Later I would move to the city and would learn to shop like everyone else at the grocery store. I would bemoan the white-centered strawberries and tomatoes. I subsisted largely on frozen chicken breast, cheese, and pretzels. Eventually, I found a small market with fresher produce, and on nice days I would walk the forty-five minutes from campus for a half a pint of raspberries, only to turn around and walk home with my prize. I would savor each berry and smile to myself at my good fortune. Surely I must have looked strange in my pleasure. A man once stopped me on the street and remarked that he could tell I was “trouble” due to the sparkle in my eyes. I laughed at this, told him he had no idea, and continued back to campus.
When I was diagnosed with colon cancer, my shopping and eating habits had to change dramatically. With the ostomy I was encouraged to eat “soft foods” and things that would slow down my system. I ate a lot of grilled cheese, oatmeal, and peanut butter and jelly. Then with the reversal of the ostomy, I found that there were many things that I could not tolerate. Eating became a chore and I was often too exhausted to cook; something I had previously prided myself in and enjoyed a great deal.
Time and rest are healing. Now that I’m not working I’ve found I have the energy to cook again. This is nice one many levels. Cooking is enjoyable. And because I have time to think and regulate what I’m putting into my system, eating is pleasurable again. Ben is happier and often has leftovers for lunch (which saves money). I’ve lost weight because I’m eating healthier. With all of this in mind, Ben and I decided that it was time to join a local CSA. We had talked about it last year, but there were too many things going on and we weren’t sure we would be able to keep up with the cooking and we didn’t want to be wasteful.
This year, with the extra time on my hands, we decided it was now or never. I researched several programs that have pickup sites close to where we live and decided on the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative. They are a non-profit, Lancaster County based, mostly-organic (they work with farmers who are working toward their organic certification too) farmers’ co-op. We decided that a ½ share of vegetables and a full fruit share would work for us. That turned out to be the right decision because we are just barely keeping up with what we get, but it’s been great for us.
The benefits of CSA are many. First, everything you get is at its freshest and most delicious. Eating seasonally is something that a lot of us have forgotten. Grocery stores have just about everything all year round, but often at the cost of flavor. I think there is something pretty great about only eating strawberries in May and June. They taste better and they are made all the sweeter by the anticipation.
Being part of Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative is educational. It means I know who is growing my food, how it’s being grown, and where it’s being grown. I have the opportunity to visit the farms and to meet the farmers. I know that through my purchase, I’m contributing to their livelihood in a very tangible way. And when they can afford to keep their farms it insures that not only will I continue to have fresh seasonal food, but that their land will remain a farm. That means that the beautiful drives through Lancaster County will continue to be beautiful.
It also means that when I have kids, I will be able to share my appreciation of food with them. I’ve heard from many participating parents that engaging their children with the other CSA members and with the farmers makes them more willing to try new things. This means healthier happier kids at mealtime! It also has broadened my tastes. For the first time, I’ve learned to prepare collard greens, beets, rainbow chard, watercress, and turnips. I have made coleslaw, red potato salad with dill, and baked carrots with parsley. I’m planning on grilling peaches and pairing them with pork chops later this week. My recipe book is quickly filling up with new recipes.
Because my food is grown in Lancaster County, it means that the cost (both fiscally and environmentally) is low. I spend approximately $23.00 a week on all the vegetables and fruit I could possibly eat. Our CSA also offers chicken, beef, milk, cheese, and eggs. All of their animals are free-range and grass-fed. This means the cow’s digestion is better, thereby reducing their “emissions.” Also, the grass processes the carbon dioxide and is easily renewable through field rotation (as it grows quickly). The beef of grass fed cows is leaner as well, which makes it lower in cholesterol. There’s an interesting article about it on Mother Earth News that you can check out.
Finally, because it’s all local, there is very little shipping or packaging involved. That means less carbon emissions from trucks and less plastic that needs to be recycled. Even the boxes they use to parcel out our share are returned to the CSA for the next week’s pickup. As a bonus, my particular CSA is organic. That means that I don’t have to worry about pesticides or hormones in my food. As a cancer survivor, this is very important to me. I don’t need to be promoting anything in my body that would encourage the regrowth of cancer cells.
I would definitely recommend joining a CSA to anyone who likes to cook. It’s the best decision Ben and I have made in a long time. The cost is low and the benefits are great. Here’s an easy recipe for fresh beets that we’ve found to be delicious! More recipes to come.
Preheat the oven to 375.
Cut the tops and bottoms off the beets, but leave the skins on.
Place one beet in the center of a square of tin foil. (repeat for each beet.)
Pour approximately 1 tbsp. of olive oil over the top of the beet.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Wrap the beet in the tin foil.
Place on a baking sheet in the oven (just in case they drip)
Bake for 1 ½ hours.
Unwrap. With a spoon, scrape the skin off the beets (If the beet is cooked properly, the skin will just peel away easily – this wastes less of the meat of the beet then peeling beforehand.)
Enjoy hot or cold!
If you’re feeling adventurous, roughly cut the beet greens off the stems. Add 2 tbsp. of olive oil and a smashed clove of garlic to a frying pan. Heat oil with the garlic. Remove garlic before it browns. Add beet greens to the pan and place lid on top. Cook until the greens are fully wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Beet greens are high in vitamins and are delicious! Plus it feels really good not to waste any part of the plant. You can pretty much eat everything, but the roots!
Happy cooking and eating!