Did you know you can get fresh fruit, vegetables and other produce every week from farms near you through a community-supported agriculture program — or what’s commonly called a CSA?
The food is healthier and fresher because it comes straight from the farm to you, says registered dietitian Beth Bluestone
. If you’re trying to work more fresh fruit and vegetables into your diet, it’s a good idea to consider joining a CSA program
, she says.
How does a CSA program work?
CSA is a way for consumers to buy local
, seasonal produce directly from farmers in their community. Each farm or group of farms offers a certain number of “shares” to the public each year.
A share typically consists of a box of fruits and vegetables, but other products are sometimes included, such as oats or grains, eggs, dairy and meat.
You will typically pay up front when you buy a share — it’s like a membership or subscription. Then each week you receive a box or bag of seasonal produce throughout the farming season (each CSA program has its own schedule and pickup system). The CSA season usually lasts for about 20 weeks, beginning in June and ending in October.
Here are the top five health benefits of joining a CSA program, according to Ms. Bluestone:
1. Locally grown produce retains more nutrients
Fresh, local produce has higher nutrient levels. “Eating local” is a way to cut down on the time between food being harvested and served at your table.
“Once produce is harvested, its optimal nutritional value decreases, specifically in vitamins A, B, C and E,” says Ms. Bluestone.
Exposure to artificial light, varying temperatures and extra time as food cycles through your grocery store all contribute to the drop in nutrients. The sooner you eat produce after it’s harvested, the better its nutrient profile.
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2. Food from local farms is more flavorful
Local produce is more delicious, which encourages you to eat more of the nutritious fruits and vegetables your doctor urges you to eat, says Ms. Bluestone. “My clients who use a CSA are always raving about the taste and freshness,” she says.
Food from CSA is typically more flavorful than food bought in a grocery store for two reasons:
“One, the produce ripens longer on the branches and vines rather than being picked early so it does not spoil during transportation,” she says. “Two, while in transport, produce starts to break down and decompose, losing its fresh taste.”
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3. Food from a reputable CSA program is as safe as supermarket produce
CSA programs are on par with grocery stores and supermarkets in terms of food safety.
“Any food that is handled is at risk of picking up pathogens
,” says Ms. Bluestone. “Treat food from your CSA like food from any other farm — and wash before you eat!”
Rinse produce under running water until the debris washes away, she advises.
“If you would like to make sure your produce is clean, wash fresh fruit and vegetables with distilled water, which is filtered and purified, to remove contaminants. Then, soak for 1-2 minutes to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.”
4. CSAs offer a great variety of seasonal choices
Your weekly bag or box will have different foods depending on the season. Early summer may offer delicious berries, lettuces and asparagus, while late summer and fall bring potatoes, watermelon and apples.
Having a variety from abundant farms means you’ll eat a more balanced diet. Also, you can try foods you saw in the supermarket, but didn’t know what to do with — kohlrabi, for instance.
“Farms will help you and offer fact sheets and recipes for produce with which you may not be familiar,” Ms. Bluestone says.
5. The farm connection encourages kids to eat more veggies
Many kids like getting their hands dirty and would like to explore a farm. And most CSA farms welcome visits from families. Some farms will even let you pick your own food to take home.
Ms. Bluestone encourages parents to take children to a local farm to learn firsthand where food comes from. She notes that children involved in apple picking, for instance, will “feel more connected to the food they eat.”
Research suggests that it’s a good idea to develop healthy eating habits early because heart disease has its roots in childhood. Perhaps your children will be more willing to sample new vegetables if they see for themselves where and how they grow.
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