In Which I Consider CSAs

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September 12, 2010 by Leah

Since I first analyzed our expenditures and became horrified by our monthly grocery bill, I’ve made several changes to how we manage what we eat. I’ve been making a lot more from scratch, like stock, all kinds of bread (various loaves, pita – thanks to Katharine, English muffins), beans, tomato sauce, and, coming up, yogurt. (Aaron loves the stuff and Kymberly, who was also appalled by our grocery bill, suggested making it at home. I’m going to attempt to forgo buying an electric yogurt maker and just use what we have on hand.) I’m planning to start canning so I can stock the pantry with said homemade things instead of relying on commercial canned goods which are jammed with preservatives, sodium, and often into BPA-lined cans. Most importantly, I think, we planted a vegetable garden.

This general watchfulness has led to us being better about using what food we buy. The past couple of Saturdays have had us staring into a fairly empty refrigerator. (I do the big farmer’s market shop on Sunday and am trying to do one other grocery run mid-week, mostly for purposes of animal protein, after realizing – thanks to credit card bills – that I was at grocery stores every other day through the summer.) Vegetable scraps are now being thrown in a bag in the freezer in order to make stock, instead of immediately going to the compost pile, and chicken carcasses are getting simmered into stock before being discarded. I discovered the ranchers who sell bison meat at the farmer’s market also offer “meaty soup bones” for $5 a pound, which is just over what one might pay for a quart of organic beef stock at the store, and I plan to take advantage of this in the near future. Our in-store purchases are pretty much limited to dairy, poultry, and staples like vinegar, oil, flour, yeast, beer, and wine. (And energy drinks – him – and diet soda – me. I know, I know.) I stopped into Whole Foods on the way home from the farmer’s market yesterday and couldn’t find a thing I wanted to buy (whole organic air-chilled chickens not being on sale).

It will take a little time to see how all of this plays out monetarily, but there’s still lots of improvement to be made. I spent much of yesterday reading about slow food, whole food (even getting into the benefits or lack thereof of raw milk and sprouted grains – who knew? And do I care enough to start seeking out such products?), local food, and similar topics. (This reminds me of the recent “Marketplace” interview with Andrew Potter about “conspicuous authenticity,” and “competitive anti-consumption,” but this is one of those areas in which the more people are interested, the better off we will be as a society, so whatever.) My research, such as it was, kept bringing me back to the subject of CSAs.

As many of us know, CSA stands for “community supported agriculture” and generally speaks to an arrangement where a group of people can get items straight from the producer. This started as a way for individuals to buy produce from farmers (actually shares of farms, in some cases), and is often executed by a farmer (or her representative) delivering several boxes full of goods to a central drop off/pick up point. I was a member of the Full Circle Farm CSA when I lived in Anchorage – there was so much interest in CSAs in Alaska four or five years ago that this farm in Washington State airmailed weekly CSA boxes to eager Anchorage consumers, who had a choice of a few different locations to pick up the boxes. The boxes were full of interesting and varied produce and also included a newsletter with recipes for the lesser known items (I still make a delicious tomatillo salsa from a Full Circle Farms recipe). After a while, the sheer amount of produce became too much for one person and I cancelled my membership when my freezer was stocked to capacity. It was also quite expensive – current rates run $41 per smaller box (suggested for 1-2 people).

Later, I was a member of the Glacier Valley CSA, which is operated by a farm out of the Matanuska Valley, about an hour outside of Anchorage. This was awesome because I could opt in to produce boxes whenever I wanted instead of being tied to a regular delivery. (Full Circle has gone more flexible with their delivery options these days, as well.) I also stayed up to date with local farm news and topics of interest, some of which were so important that I wrote to legislators. I think I only ever ordered two actual produce boxes, six months apart, but it was nice knowing that much of the produce was local. (Glacier Valley fills out CSA box contents with fruits and the like imported in bulk from organic farms in the Pacific Northwest). Even with it being a local venture, Glacier Valley was also rather expensive at $35 per box.

Yesterday I started investigating CSAs in my new area of residence, wondering if joining a CSA would make financial sense (if I just wanted the lovely local produce I could go to a farmers’ market almost any day of the week). I made several surprising discoveries. First, there’s a local urban farm in North Long Beach with a CSA program. The farm is called The Growing Experience. It’s on a formerly unused seven acres of land at the Carmelitos Housing Project and small (one to two person) CSA boxes are $12 per week. Twelve dollars! If I picked up a box every week, that would be $48 per month – under a tenth of my ideal monthly grocery budget. It would include produce we would have to be creative about cooking and eating (this is a good thing), which would be even more locally grown that what I get at the farmer’s market, and it would be a foreseeable expense and easy to budget around. Also, CSA members have occasional opportunities to volunteer at the farm, which would be a great learning experience for me as a fledgling gardener. I’ve already emailed the CSA coordinator to see if I can join.

Another interesting thing I learned is that CSAs aren’t just for vegetables anymore. People have created CSAs for everything from organic wine to fresh cut flowers to organic yarn. The version that interests me the most is the meat CSA. The San Francisco area seems to have the best options for meat CSAs (they have one with a miles-long waiting list that allows you to pick up a combination of pastured and/or grass-fed chicken, beef, and pork on a monthly basis) but there’s a beef CSA (J&J Grassfed Beef) with a drop off point in Long Beach. It’s run by two farmers in California and all the beef is from cows that were pastured (they led good lives, for beef cattle), grass-fed (this gives major nutritional benefits), and as local as one is going to find. They deliver to Long Beach every other month and their smallest pack is good for “three to four average beef eaters.” I think we would be fine with this, since delivery is every other month, we have a freezer, and Aaron is planning to start working out seriously again (as in muscle-building, not just healthful exercise – hello, protein). Also, the guilt I sometimes feel when eating beef (probably from years of being on a diet) would be considerably assuaged by eating pastured, grass-fed, and local. The grass-fed bison meat I currently buy once every couple of weeks at the farmer’s market tastes amazing and makes me feel great, not soporific or overloaded.

Membership in the J&J CSA costs $15 as a one-time startup fee, plus a $10 delivery fee (the more you buy the less the delivery fee, but we’d be buying the minimum) and somewhere between $75 and $85 for 9.5 pounds of assorted cuts of beef. Steaks, ground, stew meat, roasts… That’s an average of $8.42 per pound, not including the delivery fee. The prices listed on their order form range from $4.50 for marrow bones and $5.50 for ground to $23 for filet steak. The grass fed bison vendors at the farmer’s market are smart and display the prices of their steaks (often averaging around 0.6 lbs) “per steak,” e.g. “top sirloin, $9-13.” Since I’m really not interested in eating hormone and antibiotic-laden meat from typical industrial farms and their badly treated animals, becoming a member of a meat CSA sounds like a really good option. I’m particularly drawn to the idea of being able to control costs up front, which would make a lot more sense for our budget than heading to the farmers’ market with a wad of cash and poor impulse control.

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