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How to Get the Freshest, Healthiest Fruits and Vegetables

Buying produce from a farm can be a win-win for consumer and farmer

spinner image female farmer hands a box of produce to a male customer
Lucy Kirk

Ever have a ripe tomato just plucked from the vine or a juicy peach right off the tree? If so, you know the taste is oh-so-much more delightful than what you get in the grocery store. 

Truly fresh produce doesn’t have to be a special occasion. You can make it a regular part of your meals by joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) plan, also known as a farm share. 

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What’s a CSA? It’s a way to purchase produce from nearby farms — instead of grocery stores. Not only are you giving farmers the financial support they need to thrive throughout the year by agreeing to buy their produce in advance, but you get those fruits and vegetables fresh and tasty. 

Here’s everything you need to know about joining a CSA, including cost, how to find one and what you get out of it. 

What are the benefits of joining a CSA? 

Getting in touch with nature. A CSA allows you to eat the fruit and vegetables that grow in the region where you live at the times of year they are ripe. That’s the opposite of what you’ll find in a grocery store — which carries year-round produce that’s been imported from around the country, says Hayden Keene, farmer and CSA manager at Mountain Roots Food Project. 

Tastier, healthier produce. You get fresh, nutritious produce, says Jennifer Hashley of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. According to the University of New Hampshire, food harvested at its peak has higher concentrations of nutrients. “It’s not spending five to seven days on a truck before it reaches your kitchen,” Keene says. 

Trying new things. There’s an opportunity to taste produce varieties you won’t find at the grocery store. “There’s thousands of different varieties of all of the fruits and vegetables, but we normally in our industrial food system only see one or two,” says Lauren Nagy, farm manager of Ironbound Farm.

“I think it is kind of an adventure. I’m going to embrace the challenge of doing something wonderful with all these great vegetables and try and be forced to try new things,” Hashley says. 

Knowing where your food is from. One of the privileges of a CSA is knowing the people who grow your food and the farm it comes from. You can ask questions about how they farm and whether they use pesticides. 

“CSA offers you the ability to really know how your food is grown because you’re able to have a one-on-one relationship with your farmer directly,” Nagy says. 

Becoming part of a community. There are often opportunities to visit the farm that supplies your produce to get to know the farmers and other CSA members. 

Some farms have member potlucks or special events, Hashley says, adding that a farm is a great place for social connectivity — something many lose as they age. 

How do you find a CSA near you?

Many farmers have CSAs and sell the service at farmers markets. The directory LocalHarvest, a community to connect people to food lists, farmers markets and CSAs by zip code or city, makes it easy to find one in your area. 

How often can you get produce delivered? 

Many farms offer weekly, biweekly or monthly produce boxes, Nagy says. Members can have the boxes delivered to their house or workplace, or they can pick them up from a general location, Hashley says. 

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How much produce do you get? 

The box size you choose should depend on how often you cook and how many veggies you eat in a week. “A couple that cooks all the time and are heavy vegetable eaters could go through a family[-size] box,” Keene says.

Do you have control over what you get? 

There are typically two models from which to choose: 

The traditional model. A member receives a prepaid produce box — weekly, monthly or bimonthly — of items that the farmer chooses based on what’s at its peak and ready to be harvested. Many CSAs offer recipes and ideas on how recipients can use the food in their box, how to store the fruits and vegetables and the health benefits of each item, as well as the farmer’s story so customers know who’s growing their food. 

A market-style model. Customers go to a participating farm and pick and choose what produce they want, using credits they purchased in advance. This model provides people with more options to select what they like or need for meal planning — especially helpful if your cooking habits vary weekly. 

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How much does a CSA cost?

The price you pay depends on the farm you purchase from, the box size and how often you receive a box.

The good news: Because customers pay in advance, farmers tend to be more generous with their offerings as a way to say thank you. 

“They feel indebted to the customer, that they want to give them a good value for having made that upfront investment, so a lot of times, CSAs are definitely more plentiful,” Hashley says. 

She estimates the general cost to be $25 to $35 a week, whether traditional or market-style. Most CSA farms operate about 20 weeks a year, though some may go longer or year-round. 

What if your farmer can’t provide the produce? 

A farm share is a collaboration between farmer and customer. Farmers who have a CSA rely on customers who pay for a share in advance. This provides them much-needed cash up front to purchase supplies, materials and seeds to plant for the coming season. They both share the risks and uncertainties as well as the bounty of the farm, according to the experts we interviewed. 

That means, if there is unexpected weather or pests that affect the crops, some produce may not be as abundant or may take longer to grow than anticipated. When this happens, farms will make substitutions or provide more of an item when it does come in.

This is why prices tend to be lower when you purchase produce boxes for the farm season than when you buy at a farmers market. 

On the flip side, when there is a bountiful harvest, farmers can be generous as a thank-you to supporters for taking the risk with them. 

So it’s important to know that if you join a CSA, you need to be flexible. 

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