Many of us are fortunate to have choices not only in the foods that we eat, but in where and how we acquire our food. We have choices in where to dine out: take-out and fast food chains, casual and fine dining restaurants. We choose where to purchase groceries for our in-home cooking needs: from the corner convenience store, a regional or national supermarket, specialty market, wholesale club, or directly from farmers or growers.
However, what if I told you that one choice among all of these choices would prove the best not only for your physical health, but for increased cost-saving, food efficiency habits, reduction of waste, and experiencing new flavors? What if I told you that this same choice would provide long-lasting social, environmental, and educational benefits that extend far beyond your daily meals? If you want to experience this unique set of member benefits, then allow me to welcome you to Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.
CSAs operate by having you, the customer, become a member. Each member commits to the purchase of a “share” of the farm before the farm’s growing season begins. The influx of capital from CSA members allows the farmers to better gauge demand for their products, which helps plan their upcoming season through endeavors like seed purchasing and hiring of labor. In exchange, you gain a commitment from the farmer to provide fresh, typically organic produce on a regularly scheduled weekly basis.
Fruit & Vegetable Consumption: Decreased Disease, Increased Health
The significance of fruits and vegetables as a regular part of your diet cannot be understated. Consumption of fruits and vegetables is proven to reduce your risk of developing many chronic diseases and conditions, such as heart disease, type II diabetes, high blood pressure and bone loss.1 Alarmingly, though, the annual consumption of fruits and vegetables fell from 299 pounds per person in 2003 to 272 pounds per person in 2013.2 Luckily, your participation in a CSA can help combat this trend, since CSAs deliver fruits and vegetables into your home on a weekly basis.
CSA’s Nutritive Benefits
So, you’ve joined a CSA with the understanding that more fruits and vegetables will make their way into your home, but does that mean that you will actually eat more of them? In short, the answer is yes. Inclusion of fruits and vegetables as snacks and at meals is higher among CSA members than among non-members by an average of 2.7 servings each day.3
CSA membership is also proven to increase the variety of produce in your home. Diversity in produce is more interesting – think of the beautiful colors on display in your countertop fruit bowl, or the different textures among the vegetables in your refrigerator crisper drawer! Equally as important, though, is that the increased variety of produce in your home will lead to an increased consumption of a larger variety of nutrients.
For those of you who want to see differences in your physical appearance as a result of consuming more fruits and veggies, chances are, you’ll achieve those results once you’re a CSA member. Numerous clinical studies provide proof linking CSA membership to decreased Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference, and overall weight loss.4,5
CSA’s Behavioral Change Benefits
CSA members also benefit from improvements in their home food preparation and in their food efficiency habits. By design, your local farmer provides your weekly CSA share without asking for your personal preferences. Regardless of whether you love beets but hate kohlrabi, the week’s harvest determines what vegetables you’ll get, and all are items for which you have already paid. Compelled to get their money’s worth, many CSA members report a desire to appropriately store and prepare the produce they receive, no matter what, thus reducing food waste. You may surprise yourself by googling new recipes so that you can expertly put that rutabaga, apricot, fennel, or honeydew melon to use!
Since a reduction in food waste means using the majority (if not all) of your CSA share each week, it will come as little surprise that CSA members cook more at home and dine out less. One 2012 study found that a CSA member group reported an increase of 5 home-cooked meals per month over a non-CSA member group.6 Additionally, it is well documented that CSA shareholders eat less processed food and report a reduction in visiting fast food restaurants.
As we consider home food preparation and food efficiency habits, let’s not forget that food, no matter where it comes from, costs money. Since CSA membership supports increased home cooking to use all of your produce, you’ll spend less impulsively on last minute take-out dinners. You’ll also find that CSA produce is less expensive on a per item basis when compared against retail prices for equivalent amounts of produce bought in supermarkets.7 Yes, your bank account will take a hit when you pay $600 for your upcoming season’s CSA in January (though some farms do allow for structured payment plans). However, come Summer, you’ll be patting yourself on the back when you receive $45-60 worth of produce each week as a result of pre-paying $600 for 24 weeks – or $25 per week!
Benefits Beyond the Produce
While you are now familiar with the benefits that come from the agricultural side of CSA membership, you should know that members also thrive on the benefits that stem from the Community segment of their CSA. CSA members report satisfaction from engagement with fellow members at weekly pickups, or through events such as farm tours, farmer hosted brunches, or member service days in the fields.
CSA members also report a sense of comfort and trust in knowing who grows their food, where it was harvested, and how far it travels to reach them. Many members find themselves able to enjoy fresh produce again, without the worry of whether their family’s food was treated with chemicals. Again, we all have a choice on how and where we spend our money – and some CSA members equate membership to a preferred means of environmental support. Ask yourself: would you rather support a local farmer, who helps sustain proper land stewardship, and in turn feed your own family and the farmer’s family through your membership? Or would you prefer to spend your money by donating to large national organizations, who certainly do good work, but for which you receive only an annual acknowledgement letter and a tote bag?
CSA membership also provides tremendous opportunities for educating children about food, farming, and community. The best part is that this education can take place from your own kitchen! Many members report increased levels of participation in food preparation from their children as they began to recognize the mystery box of vegetables appearing in their home each week. One study even revealed that interest from children was not displayed before CSA membership, when the study family was eating more processed foods.8
Criticism of CSA Member Benefits
As with anything food related, CSA is not a perfect system. Some critics decry the benefits unique to CSA membership, arguing that those who join CSA programs are already predisposed to healthy eating habits. You can be the judge of whether that is true in your own home. However, my prediction is that you may conclude that the financial and lifestyle commitment made by purchasing half a year’s worth of fresh produce upfront is the best motivator to eat healthfully, predisposition or not.
With experience, CSA members come to understand that farming is unpredictable. Farms may overproduce (or under produce) throughout the growing season, based on factors that neither farmers nor you can control, like the weather. This means that when produce abounds, farmers generally give excess to favored customers – their CSA members – and critics argue that this leads to food waste. Again, you can let experience be the judge, but there is no evidence that more waste occurs via CSA membership than it does when you purchase at a supermarket.
Since increased fruit and vegetable consumption promotes optimal health and reduces the risk of disease, we can agree that participation in a CSA program proves a cost and habit efficient way to maximize intake of these nutrients. In addition, the social, environmental, and educational benefits that are unique to CSA membership certainly cannot be replicated through shopping at a grocery store or BJ’s Club.
Since so many of us are concerned with health factors like BMI, blood pressure and cholesterol, I recommend the expansion of current research studies to increase understanding of how these factors are affected by CSA membership. In addition, your friends and neighbors in underserved populations, like single parent households or non-Caucasians, could benefit from greater access to CSA programs and from studies that examine this value in action.
This February 24th is World CSA Day – a perfect occasion to direct your dollars towards a commitment to your health. Support a farmer, become part of a community, and gain infinite benefits.
- United States Department of Agriculture. Why is it important to eat vegetables? Choose MyPlate. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/vegetables-nutrients-health. Updated January 12, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017.
- Lin BH, Morrison RM. A closer look at declining fruit and vegetable consumption using linked data sources. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2016/july/a-closer-look-at-declining-fruit-and-vegetable-consumption-using-linked-data-sources/. Published July 5, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017.
- Allen JE, Rossi J, Woods TA, Davis AF. Do community supported agriculture programmes encourage change to food lifestyle behaviours and health outcomes? New evidence from shareholders. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. 2017;15(1): 70-82. doi: 10.1080/14735903.2016.1177866.
- Minaker LM, Raine KD, Fisher P, Thompson ME, Van Loon J, Frank LD. Food purchasing from farmers markets and community-supported agriculture is associated with reduced weight and better diets in a population-based sample. J Hunger Environ Nutr. 2014;9: 485-497. doi: 10.1080/19320248.2014.898175.
- Berning, JP. Access to local agriculture and weight outcomes. Agric Resour Econ Rev. 2012;41(1): 57-71. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1068280500004184.
- Cohen JN, Gearhart S, Garland E. Community supported agriculture: a commitment to a healthier diet. J Hunger Environ Nutr. 2012;7: 20-37. doi: 10.1080/19320248.2012.651393.
- Cooley JP, Lass DA. Consumer benefits from community supported agriculture membership. Appl Econ Perspect Policy. 1998;20(1): 227-237. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/1349547.
- Wharton CM, Hughner RS, MacMillan L, Dumitrescu C. Community supported agriculture programs: a novel venue for theory-based health behavior change interventions. Ecol Food Nutr. 2015;54(3): 280-301. doi: 10.1080/03670244.2014.1001980.