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Cheap veggies, all summer long

A community-supported-agriculture subscription brings the fields to your table. Bonus: You'll be supporting a small farm.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 17, 2012 6:42PM

Image: Groceries (© Jeffrey Hamilton/Getty Images/Getty Images)Want the freshest produce possible without the bother of digging and delving? Sign up for a community-supported-agriculture program. It's like having a garden, except that you don't have to weed or pick slugs off the lettuce.

You'll be supporting a small farm, maybe even an organic one, with your subscription. In addition to all that good karma, you'll get a box each week that's filled with delicious things to eat, some of which you might even recognize. (More on that in a minute.)

Your subscription fees make you a shareholder, because you're helping to cover farm costs that season. You're also "reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Post continues after video.)

I looked for CSA operations near Anchorage, Alaska; Kalispell, Mont.; and New York City and found costs ranging from $500 to $565 for 18 to 21 weeks' worth of produce. That's $25 to $31  -- not bad for a week's worth of fresh vegetables.

Produce is the star

The fresher the food, the more nutrition it contains. The contents of a CSA box vary from week to week depending on what's in season, but the produce is always fresh.

And varied. You will find yourself eating things you couldn't initially identify when the lid was lifted. (The CSA box will likely contain cooking tips, if not actual recipes.) Soon it won't be a question of "What am I going to do with 6 pounds of Chioggia beets?" but instead, "Oh, man, there are only five Chioggia beets this time!"

Fresh produce is worlds better than something grown who-knows-where and harvested who-knows-when. If you've never tasted corn picked a few hours before you ate it or bitten into a tomato fresh from the vine still warm from the summer sun, you don't know what real food tastes like.

That's where the frugal part comes in. With produce that good, you can cut way down on your meat consumption. A good eggplant dish or some greens braised in garlic and olive oil plus a loaf of good bread will be enough for dinner. On a hot summer night you might want to eat lightly anyway.

With a CSA subscription, "lightly" doesn't mean "pick up takeout on the way home." It means coming up with new treats based on what's fresh from the farm.

New ways to look at produce

Not used to cooking with a lot of vegetables? I have a couple of recommendations.

First, read "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace," a series of essays disguised as a cookbook. As a writer, Tamar Adler is in the same league with M.F.K. Fisher, and you may find her approach to vegetables could be life-changing. It has certainly revolutionized the way I cook them.

Or go online. I'd recommend the Cheap Healthy Good blog, a terrific source of recipes.

A site called Food Farm Blog is a big help for veggie newbies with a series of posts called "Weird CSA vegetables." You'll soon be preparing celeriac or yard-long beans like a pro.

And here's one I couldn't resist sharing, from Blame It On the Food: bacon-stuffed zucchini and summer squash. Hobby gardeners take note, too, since if you've got more than one zucchini plant then you've got too much zucchini.

"Add bacon and anything will go down," the author notes.


To check out your CSA options, click on the USDA link above and scroll down to "Find a CSA farm."

Are you a CSA shareholder? Have you discovered any new favorite foods that way?

More on MSN Money:

May 21, 2012 12:06PM
the only problem with CSAs is they want the payment in full or half. $200.00 or more at a time is still a load to pay down at once
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.