Affordable Healthy Foods

Author Marian Isel Barragán working at Conuco Farm in New Paltz, NY.

It’s Monday afternoon at Angel Family Farm in Goshen, NY. Farmer Ana Isabel Rodriguez Angel scans her fields, looking for signs of freshness. She must determine if her tomatoes, eggplants, cilantro, onions and garlic are abundant, ready and ripe enough be harvested. Ana begins to carefully cut, pick, wash and pack her vegetables, placing them in her clean delivery boxes, making a list of recipients as she goes. Some items, like zucchini blossoms, are more delicate and will have to be picked in the pre-dawn hours on Tuesday—Ana’s CSA delivery day—before she makes the hour and a half drive to New York City. “I adore my CSA’s,” Ana says, referring to her customers.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a different model of shopping for food.  Members of a community pool their money to invest in a farmer (or farmers) up front, in the beginning of the season. This is an economic agreement and investment, which provides the farmer(s) with the revenue needed to hire workers, buy seed and avoid relying on high-interest loans. In exchange, a farmer will provide weekly shares to the community at a local meeting place (a cafe, church basement, someone’s home or a local YMCA).  The community accepts a ride-or-die relationship with the farmer. When the season is bountiful, you are blessed with a cornucopia of veggies (and depending on your farm: fruits, dairy products and even coffee) for 22-26 weeks (usually from June-November). If things go bad (flooding, pests, etc.) then the community takes the hit as well.

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According to Leadership for Healthy Communities, “limited availability of healthy foods…contribute to higher rates of overweight and obesity among Latino children and families.”  With childhood obesity drastically increasing the risk of asthma, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other chronic illnesses, could a CSA be a Latino family’s answer to better health? Jessica Cortes, Farm Network Coordinator for Just Food, an organization that brings different agricultural projects to urban areas, says, “Every person that joins and becomes part of this model spreads the word on how accessible fresh produce is and why it’s important.”

 A CSA will often have yearly farm trips, which further connects children and families to their food, which in turn encourages healthy eating. Rodriguez Angel says, “When they visit the farm, the children recognize and can identify the vegetables. For example, I bring them kale in bunches, and they recognize the kale. And the beets! Even though they are beneath the soil they recognize the leaves. They shout, ‘Look, there are the beets!’ or ‘I found a carrot’, ‘I found basil!’ It fills me with pride because they are familiar with all these veggies at such a young age.” Back at the Neighborhood School, one of Rodriguez Angel’s CSA’s in the Lower East Side of New York City, the children will grab their own bags to collect their veggies, talking to each other about the different salads they can make. Children exchanging healthy recipes tips, imagine that!

Cortes encourages consumers to “be inquisitive, to know where your food is coming from. We ALL deserve fresh, local, environmentally sound produce.” Your CSA vegetables have been plucked from the ground within 24 hours and are nutrient-dense, unlike some of the veggies in your local supermarket, which have been sprayed with chemicals and sitting on trucks, planes, in warehouses and on shelves for up to weeks at a time. The more nutritious and fresh our food, the more satisfied our bodies will be and the less likely we are to seek empty calories in sugary snacks and junk foods.

Belonging to a CSA does bring some surprises. You don’t know what vegetables you will be getting each week. This was an adjustment for me. After all, I was used to shopping for exactly what I wanted, thank you very much! But this quickly turned into a welcome surprise of sorts; I now view it as a creative culinary challenge.

Ana also believes that people’s relationship with fresh food has evolved. “Before you used to ask people where they were going and their answer was to eat fast food or to pick up Chinese food. And now, I ask people if I can visit them on Saturday or Sunday and they’ll say, ‘Well you can come after I go to the greenmarket or to pick up my CSA.’  So many people have fallen ill and don’t want the same fate for their children, so they are teaching their children to eat healthy.”

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This year will be my third year as a member of the Bed-Stuy Farmshare, a local CSA in my area. My family eats so many more vegetables now than ever before. I often share my extra fruits and veggies with other family members and neighbors. My fellow CSA members and I exchange recipes (what to do with a Turkish Turban squash?) and healthy dishes. I have taken my mom to Conuco Farms, one of my CSA farms (which unfortunately suffered devastating floods due to Hurricane Irene last year), for our volunteer workday. She said it reminds her of being in Cuba, where she grew up on a dairy farm. (She’s also really good at shepherding the group of Brooklynites who’d rather take a lazy nap in the sunny, grassy fields than plant rows of kale.)

Today, I don’t know what I would do without my CSA. I am learning about canning and freezing my food, so I can have treats year-round.  I have come to know and love my farmers. Ana says, “My relationships with my CSA members is a beautiful one.  It’s no longer just a customer/vendor relationship; it’s not just about making money. These people become your family, and I am focused on their well-being.”

Think a CSA is right for you and your family? Your answer may be as close as a Google search away.  Or visit Just Food for more information.  Registration time is in the early spring so act now. Remember to ask about financing options, low-income shares or paying with food stamps. Your reward will be good eating—and good health!