It’s not easy to make responsible decisions about purchasing food. In addition to worrying about the healthfulness of what you’re eating (Carbs! Sodium! Fat!), you may also try making decisions that are environmentally responsible. The problem is that many of these goals are in conflict with one another.
The obvious solution seemingly is whole foods: fruits, vegetables, meat. Unprocessed ingredients. But if you take a closer look at what you’re buying at the grocery store, odds are that the fruit comes from South America and shipped or flown to the US at great cost and carbon footprint. They likely came from industrial farms, and may contain pesticides and other chemicals. Most fruit is coated in a waxy substance to make them look shinier and more appealing. You don’t know where the chickens came from, how they were treated, or what they were fed.
So then, the answer is organic, right? But shopping organic can be equally problematic. The increased popularity of organic foods has created the seemingly paradoxical “industrial organic,” illuminates how food became industrialized in the first place: because it’s hard to grow large quantities of food organically. While foods that are grown without pesticides and artificial fertilizer are ostensibly better for the environment, they could also be shipped from afar, and are frequently cost-prohibitive to the average consumer.
Hence, the (somewhat) recent movement of the CSA and local eating. If you haven’t heard of a CSA, it stands for Community Sustained Agriculture, and you can get more information, particularly about your specific area, on local-living or government sites. In brief, if you join a CSA it’s like having a share of a local or regional farm. You pay toward the operations of the farm, and in return you get a share of the harvest of the farm’s produce, eggs, meat, or dairy. Depending upon how your local CSA is run, you may also be asked to spend a day on the farm helping out. You should most definitely do your research before joining one to get a sense of what is expected from you as a shareholder.
A CSA can be a mutually beneficial situation for both farmer and consumer. It gives the consumer a way to receive fresh, locally-grown produce through most of the year (or all year, depending upon your location in the US), and it gives the farmers a more reliable revenue stream. People who belong to CSAs often end up receiving vegetables, herbs, roots, and other produce that they’ve never eaten or cooked with before. It can be a fun way to add some variety to your diet and your cooking rotation.
It also can bring one back in touch with the rhythm of growing seasons. The growing seasons are something that humans have been experiencing since we first began to farm, but have largely lost touch with. With today’s chemical preservatives, refrigeration, and international commerce streams, many people take for granted that you have strawberries in the winter in New England, or pumpkins in New Mexico. But that seasonal rhythm is still a part of us; it’s why right about now, we’re all craving soup or squash or apples. Receiving local, in-season produce, you watch the seasons change week by week as the food shifts accordingly.
It’s possible that there aren’t any CSAs within reach of where you live, but it’s unlikely. A quick look at a CSA map shows pretty good coverage throughout the US. If you’ve been looking for an easy way to eat locally, or for your eating habits to have a smaller environmental impact, a CSA might be a great solution for you.