What Is a CSA Farm?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in 10 adults in the U.S. is eating the recommended amount of vegetables. And our children are doing no better. Even with potatoes counting as a vegetable — think French fries and chips — we’re missing the mark by a landslide.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that adults enjoy 2.5 cups of vegetables each day, including vegetables from each of the five subgroups: leafy greens, peas and beans (aka legumes), red and orange veggies, starchy vegetables and others. By eating different colors and kinds of vegetables, we optimize our overall nutrition.

We all know that vegetables are healthy, and we know that we should eat more, but we aren’t.

But you can change that. February 28th is national CSA day, making it the perfect time for you to start eating more local vegetables and other farm goods.

[SEE: Plant-Based Diet Ideas.]

Joining a CSA Farm

CSA stands for community supported agriculture. CSA farms offer an opportunity for you to support a local farm and also reap the benefits of that farm’s harvest. You buy a share — essentially a membership or subscription for the growing season of that farm. This usually happens in the early spring, when farmers are busy buying seeds, planting, cleaning the greenhouses and planning their harvests. Each week, during the harvest, you get your share of what’s fresh, ripe and ready to be picked — from early spinach and asparagus in the spring to tomatoes in late summer to pumpkins and squash in the fall.

While CSAs are not tracked by the U.S. government, data available indicates that they’re popular and bountiful. Local Harvest, a directory connecting consumers and farmers, estimates that there are more than 4,000 CSAs across the country — that’s a lot considering that fewer than 2{ff534ea0be041245dec5650aca40b93bf0fbd21a075cea1ec885fc4881d621f5} of Americans are farmers today.

Originally, CSAs were focused on vegetables only but have evolved over time. Shares include what’s been grown by your farm. They may also partner with other farmers and local businesses to provide an even more diverse weekly market basket, such as handmade soap or local honey. For example, some CSAs include herbs, eggs, fruits, bread, fruit jams and even flowers.

Each week you’ll be picking your box up at the farm or meeting your farmer at a drop off point. Some CSA farms even deliver.

Health Benefits

By joining a CSA, you and your family will naturally be eating more vegetables. “My kids tried lots of new veggies,” says Justine Johnson, a member a member of Schaefer’s Farm Market and CSA in Trenton Ohio. “My daughter requests a cabbage stew now. I liked incorporating more vegetables into our meals and challenging myself to find new ways to prepare them. I could tell we were all fuller and craving less junk food.”

A weekly supply of farm-fresh produce gets you and your family into the habit of preparing — and eating — fresh veggies each week. A 2014 study in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition found that CSA membership was associated with a healthier diet, smaller waist circumference and a lower body-mass index. Those with self-reported “poor health” before joining a CSA had the greatest improvement with CSA membership.

Other studies have found that CSA memberships increase the variety of vegetables one eats. If you’ve never popped a fresh Sungold cherry tomato in your mouth or a thick slice of a Brandywine tomato that was picked that morning and sprinkled with salt and pepper, you haven’t fully enjoyed the depth of flavors that tomatoes offer. Anything from the regular grocery store simply can’t compete. And while you might not usually have the courage to buy kohlrabi at the grocery store, you’ll have an exciting challenge when it shows up in your CSA box. Don’t worry, many CSAs include meal ideas and recipes in their emails and newsletters.

[LEARN MORE: 5 Totally Underrated Green Fruits and Vegetables.]

Cost

Some farms offer goods from spring to early fall; others supply food year-round, with meats, dairy, beans, microgreens and preserved goods like fermented cabbage. Many CSAs usually run from May or June until September, with an average cost between $300 to $600.

You’re also bolstering the farm when its economics are the most lean. Most farmers make no income during the winter, but the expenses don’t stop. While it might feel like a lot all at once, it’s much more reasonable when you factor what the cost is per week — especially when you consider that you’re getting high-quality produce that’s picked at the peak of freshness.

If the cost is prohibitive, some farms offer reduced cost shares for those with a lower income. Your local farms may also offer payment plans or half-shares. And there might be an option to work for a share. When I was a new grad and job hunting — read: broke — I spent one Saturday morning doing a workshare at a local farm. In exchange for one share of veggies, I pulled weeds between rows of tender little kale plants. The soil was muddy, and my boots were very heavy. I tried very hard to not crush any kale.

The next day, it seemed as if I were sore in every single muscle in my body. And you had better believe that I ate every single bite of those hard-earned veggies. I wasn’t going to waste anything that I had worked so very hard for.

[SEE: Summer Superfoods List: From Leeks to Beets.]

Connection to Our Food

Most of us are disconnected from how our food is grown, where it’s grown and how to prepare it. Joining a CSA helps us to become healthier and more knowledgeable consumers. Each farm has different growing practices, and you’ll be able to learn more about the specifics of how your food is grown when you have your very own farmer you can talk to.

Did your New Year’s resolutions include eating a little better? Or to buy and eat more locally? Or to have a lower carbon footprint? Joining a CSA supports all of these important goals and more. Local Harvest offers a directory of CSA farms. You can also ask at your local farmer’s market for recommendations.

It’s time to meet your local farmers. We tend to have good working relationships with our dentists, mechanics, doctors and therapists but not our farmers. Let’s change that, one CSA share at a time.

Holly Larson, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer. Ms. Larson specializes in compelling, evidence-based essays covering integrative and functional nutrition, gardening, women’s health and wellness and children’s nutrition.

In addition to her work for US News and World Report, Ms. Larson has been featured in Food and Nutrition Magazine and Eat Right.org.

An Ohio native, Ms. Larson earned her bachelor’s degree from Ohio University and her master’s degree from The Ohio State University. When she isn’t writing, you’ll find Ms. Larson hiking with her bernedoodle, testing recipes, reading a murder mystery or in her garden.

To learn more about Holly Larson, please visit her website or connect with her on LinkedIn.