What is a CSA, and how can you find a local CSA farm? Check out our complete guide to shop local and score super-fresh produce.
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In light of the coronavirus pandemic when many people are resorting to any means necessary to steer clear of the supermarket (and potential germs and shortages there), some CSA farms are seeing subscriptions double this spring, according to NPR. Whether you’re seeking a grocery store alternative or want to connect to, and support, local farmers, a CSA box might be the ideal solution. Get the scoop about how to join one near you.

What Is a CSA?

Wondering, “what does CSA stand for?” You’re not alone. It's an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture. Since 1984, small farmers have eliminated the middleman to supply fresh produce or other locally-made items to neighbors without going through the store. To take part in a CSA, you make a pledge to support the farm financially upfront to help the farmers pay for equipment, seeds, fertilizer, and supplies at the start of the season. Then you, as a CSA box recipient, receive a share of the farm’s products as they are grown and harvested. Think of it like those popular mail-order subscription boxes, in which you pay ahead and they send you a surprise each month.

CSAs are adapting to the times, and occasionally include flexible shares (to allow for subscribers to swap things in or out), online markets for add-ons of non-produce items, and multi-farm CSAs (to diversity box ingredients), according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

It’s a win-win, explains Guillermo Payet, the Santa Cruz, California-based president and founder of LocalHarvest, an online directory that connects people looking for food with thousands of CSAs and family farms across the U.S. and Canada.

“You can support your local family farms and local economy while getting fresh produce delivered or picked up directly. That way, you minimize the number of hands that touch your food between the field and your table,” he says. “It also helps to reduce your family’s dependency on our currently-stressed food supply chains.”

You can find your local CSA options on LocalHarvest, or search online for “CSA farms near me.”

woman unpacking her CSA vegetable box at home
Credit: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

What Comes in a CSA Box?

One of the most beautiful things about local CSAs, Payet says, is the surprise.

“CSAs inspire people to explore uncommon produce items if you’re feeling adventurous. Rutabaga? Radicchio? Celeriac? Finocchio? The fear of the unknown might keep you from normally choosing these, but if they appear in your CSA box, you’ll learn to cook delicious and healthy meals with seasonal ingredients you may have never seen or considered using before.” (In case you need a refresher, here are fresh ideas for storing produce so you don't waste a dime.)

If you prefer to stay on the safe side, “many CSAs now offer customizable boxes where the subscriber can see what’s coming in their next delivery and opt out of certain items,” Payet adds.

Expect local, seasonal, and fresh, and don’t hesitate to call ahead, check out the CSA farm’s website, or find them on Facebook or Instagram to see what they are growing and have planted in years past. Some CSAs also schedule visits or host farm dinners, when public gatherings are safe and allowed, to introduce potential members and incentivize current ones.

If you’re a prolific gardener and have the fruits and veggies covered on your own, some communities also offer meat, poultry, or seafood CSAs.

Who Should Subscribe to a Local CSA?

“I can’t think of anyone who shouldn’t consider getting a CSA,” Payet says. “CSAs are not like the grocery store. It’s a relationship with your local growers. Farmers carefully plan, grow, and harvest food for their 'neighbors.’ That’s how it used to be before the industrialization of our food systems.” 

While there is risk in the subscription, as crops can always struggle due to weather or other harsh conditions, you’ll almost always end up with far more farm-fresh goodies than you’d normally buy. Plus, it’s not just about filling your refrigerator and your stomach, it’s about supporting small businesses at the same time. 

Don’t be immediately turned off from a CSA box if you live alone, travel often, or don’t cook every day. Many local CSAs allow you to adjust the size of your share to suit your needs and reduce food waste or offer the opportunity to cash in “vacation credits” later or donate your unused shares to a local charity or food bank.

The cost of buying fruits and veggies at farmers markets or your supermarket will be about even to a CSA box by the end of the season. But CSAs come out on top as the veggie victor in terms of inspiring more unique kitchen creations, shopping local, and reducing the distance your food travels from field to plate.

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