Subscribing to a regular CSA box or produce box delivery can be a great way to support local farmers as well as get your eight servings a day of fresh fruit and vegetables. Here are some tips to help you use your share and make the most of it.
(These tips work for good produce sales regardless of how you get your surplus produce.)
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Don’t have a green thumb or the space to grow your own fruits and veggies? No problem! There are lots of great sources for fresh produce: the grocery store, of course, but also the farmer’s market, Imperfect Foods, and the farmers themselves.
When you subscribe to a farm’s regular delivery, this is often called a CSA box subscription. You’re partnering with the farm, committing to buy their produce while they can count on a certain amount of capital every month or season to help run their business.
A CSA box subscription can be a great way to eat healthier on a budget.
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The benefit of a weekly produce or CSA box is huge. A huge collection of aromatic, diverse, farm fresh, seasonal produce, often organic, packed just for me? Sweet!
The challenge? A huge collection of aromatic, diverse, farm fresh, seasonal produce.
Sometimes huge is a problem. What in the world will I do with all this? There’s so much of it!
Sometimes diverse is a problem. I’ve met vegetables I’d never heard of previously! Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas? Do people still eat those? And what in the world do I do with a pea tendril?
Sometime fresh is a problem. Since it’s not canned or frozen already, it needs to be used pretty quickly to maximize that freshness. The last thing you want is to waste all this beautiful fruit and veg.
Sometimes seasonal is a problem. Over several years of receiving a CSA box or produce box of some kind, I’ve realized that seasons are really different in the local growing world. The foods we buy in the store are not naturally available year round. The tomato season is not as long as the supermarket would have us believe, nor, thank heavens, is butternut squash season.
Over the years, I’ve developed some strategies to help us make the most of the CSA box as well as how to get kids to eat more vegetables.
CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. Subscribers to a CSA are basically partnering with a local farmer. Their subscription fee provides some of the capital that the farmer needs to grow his crops. In exchange, the subscriber receives a weekly allotment of produce.
There are different payment plans and structures available. Some require that you pay upfront in one large sum. Others, like the ones I’ve seen in Southern California, operate year-round and allow for weekly or monthly payments.
Either way you’re investing in a local business, eating seasonally based on your locale, and hopefully enjoying lots of farm fresh produce.
One of the caveats of a CSA is that if it’s a poor year for the farmer due to weather, disease, pests, etc, well, then it’s a poor year for your CSA box.
When you subscribe to a CSA box, you’re working directly with the farmer. Imperfect Foods, on the other hand, acts as a go-between the farmer and the consumer, reclaiming surplus produce and foods that aren’t pretty enough to go to market. Both can help the individual farmer to recoup losses and keep going.
You can do a quick google search or head straight to Local Harvest which maintains a directory of CSA programs, U-pick farms, and farm stands.
Strategies to Avoid Waste
1. Divide and conquer.
Most CSA box deliveries are for a particular day of the week and you often get a sneak peak a few days prior. Some even allow for swaps if you know there’s an item you won’t use.
Sometimes there are last minute changes. Sometimes we’re just blown away by a ginormous squash or an abundance of fresh pluots. Sometimes something is missing. These things happen.
Bring in that box and dash to the cupboard for bags, baskets, and boxes to sort your produce haul.
- Use large, clear plastic boxes with lids to store the items that need to be refrigerated.
- Baskets are great for the items that can be stored in the pantry (onions, potatoes) or on the counter (summer fruit and tomatoes).
- Reuse grocery store plastic bags when you can for some items like lettuce, carrots, and beets.
- Or you can invest in some nice, reusable produce bags.
Divvy up the box right away so that you can store each item appropriately. Some fruits and vegetables are not good to be stored together. The off-gassing can make one ripen more quickly or give it an odd taste or texture.
The Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook offers great tips on food storage.
2. Use up the perishables right away.
In the early months of our CSA box experience I thought I’d just cook everything fresh the night of serving. I found this to be a lot of work and a little anxiety producing. I was nervous that I would lose our cash investment if the food went bad before I could get around to cooking it up. It just wasn’t very fun.
Now I know better. On the first day or two after we get our box, I focus on the extreme perishables. Arugula flowers need to be used right away. Sweet corn tastes best soon after it’s been picked.
Some things need to be consumed as soon as you possibly can. For instance, basil doesn’t keep well. I’ve tried a variety of methods including storing it on the counter in a glass of water. At my house it seems to wilt very quickly.
So, I use it up the night of our delivery, making an Herbed Compound Butter or Rustic Basil Sauce (a poor man’s pesto) if I don’t have a recipe that night that will use a ton of basil. These two items keep or freeze well and make great use of that fabulous flavor.
Consider which items will perish first in your box. This might depend on how ripe they are when they arrive at your house. Use those first.
Be sure to scroll down for 20+ recipes and tips to help you use your CSA box!
3. Chill out.
If you’ve got items that can be frozen, then prep them for the freezer. We’ve enjoyed summer corn and green beans in the middle of winter thanks to my blanching them and packaging them for the freezer in season.
And that avalanche of butternut squash? I made Homemade Butternut Squash Puree and froze it for future baking.
There’s a wealth of items that you can freeze to enjoy later. You can freeze vegetables for side dishes later and freeze fruits for baking or for smoothies.
- Zest the lemons and other citrus and store the zest and juice separately in the freezer. So much better than bottled!
- Chop and freeze fresh herbs for tasty goodness all year long.
- To make it easier to store and use berries and chopped fruits, be sure to quick freeze them before storing them in the plastic bags.
- Storing the fruit with sugar will extend its quality while frozen. But, if you’re going to use them with a few weeks, you should be fine.
For even more convenience, do a bulk batch of baking and bake up your surplus fruit, berries, and squash. Butternut Squash Brownies whenever I want? Yes, please! Cool and wrap well before freezing.
4. Can it.
Just as knitting and frugal living are seeing a new popularity, so is home preserving. The things that our grandmothers did second nature have almost become lost arts.
The Ball Blue Book is hugely instructive in learning how to do the things our grandmothers practiced every summer.
Our CSA box has brought the experience back to me. Over the years I’ve made pomegranate jelly, several types of jam (cherry, plum, apricot), and Homemade Dill Pickles.
I’ve had some hit and miss success. (Don’t even get me started on the mushy pickles.) But, overall, it’s been extremely satisfying to “put up” a variety of jams and jellies over the last year. I probably wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have a CSA box.
5. Include it in your meal plan.
The first time I tried a CSA box, it stressed me out. A year later I gave it another shot and it stuck. It took some time to learn to work our meals around what was in the box as opposed to what I wanted to make. But, this is more reminiscent of how the Earth’s calendar really works.
It’s a good mental exercise to think according to the seasons. It tastes better, too.
Over the years our family has become more and more accustomed to eating seasonal foods. They’ve even come to tolerate butternut squash, and we’ve discovered some wonderful foods that we might not have ever tried.
I can’t wait to get more pea tendrils and leeks next spring. The kids now think fondly on brussels sprouts. And even hubby has remarked that he knows when the seasons are changing. He knew his taste buds were ready for apricots when that first batch came in the box.
We’ve seen much good fruit from a regular produce subscription. In more ways than one. The benefits totally outweigh the challenges of a CSA box.
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This post was originally published July 16, 2012. It has been updated for content and clarity.