A box a week is all we ask

How to eat healthy, nurture local economies and save the planet

Illustration By Josh Neuland

Michael Feliciano is an artist, musician and community activist living in Midtown

Committing to my good health started with a goal to eat less fast food, and then it came to mean eating no fast food, and then it grew to mean avoiding red meat and eating fewer processed foods. I remember thinking, “Man, this feels great, but where does it end?” I started to learn about sustainable agriculture and sustainable living, and then I found myself seeking primarily whole foods and organic foods and buying as many groceries as I could in bulk. After just a few years of expanding my awareness, my sense of health broadened to include the health of the soil in which my food grows and the integrity of the economies with which I interact. I grew to love the farmers’ markets. Eventually, I moved into an apartment downtown with room out back for a compost pile and with a roommate who also was enthusiastic about the idea of composting. It didn’t take long to buy into the idea of community- supported agriculture, or CSA.

I went online and learned about the four or five wonderful CSA farms that serve this area, such as Full Belly Farm and Terra Firma, both in Capay Valley, about an hour west of Woodland. We decided on Good Humus, 20 acres farmed by Jeff and Annie Main since 1980, which also was in Capay Valley. Mostly, it was the ongoing relationship my roommate Marialena’s family has had with them that sealed the deal—word of mouth, just like anything else. The way it works is that you become a “member” of a farm, but not a huge, industrial farm. You become a member of a small, family-owned-and-operated organic farm. You pay a set price per month or quarter, and every week, you go down to the drop location and pick up a box of beautiful vegetables. These vegetables are real—not genetically modified “frankenfood” sprayed with chemicals to make them shiny and big, and certainly not sprayed with pesticides. This is produce so fresh that the veggies practically vibrate out of the box in which they came. They are still alive! And did I mention that everything is organically grown?

Certified organic is a quality that is worth mentioning twice because it has become such a powerful socio-political statement to leverage one’s food dollar in the direction of sustainable agriculture. CSA and organic farming touch upon a larger vision, and it may cost more to eat organic, but at this point, the price difference can be thought of as a donation toward helping to detoxify the planet and our bodies. It equates to standing in solidarity with a whole network of family farmers working hard to do the right thing, and the truth is, you kind of become part of the family. For those who value connection with the earth and nature’s cycles and really knowing where one’s food is coming from, it’s a beautiful vision. But it does, indeed, require a bit of flexibility and a bit of surrender.

The call for flexibility starts with figuring out how to utilize what comes in the box, and this is when I typically start whining. I love to cook, and I cook often, mostly vegetarian dishes. I used to think I was skilled at cooking vegetarian, but CSA is stretching my abilities and demanding that I expand my palate. I am actually following recipes for the first time in years. Prior to CSA, I had never cooked turnips. I had never even eaten a turnip. I didn’t buy cabbage or leeks or sweet potatoes and had never even heard of kohlrabi. Kohlrabi, in case you’re wondering, is a round vegetable with purplish stalks and leaves that look like tentacles surrounding a white, solid flesh that tastes like a cross between a radish and a potato. It’s not something you find in the produce aisle at Safeway.

CSA farms tend to plant a wide variety of crops, understanding the value of biodiversity and also responding to the geographical and climate conditions that prevail. Like too many Americans, I grew up fearing fresh produce, but I gradually reconditioned myself to love the more common fruits and vegetables. With the first CSA boxes, despite my enthusiasm, I was responding to radishes and kale like a 9-year-old boy facing an awfully healthy supper. Strange vegetables can be intimidating. If not for the recipe ideas covering every item in the box, if not for the weekly handwritten newsletters from Annie about life on the farm and the challenges involved in getting these vegetables to my kitchen, my share of the veggies might have gone straight to the compost pile. I even might have quit the CSA.

Consider that, as a member, my share of the “challenge” is to invest in this weekly box of produce and completely relinquish the ability to choose what items I’ll be eating. This is the surrender I mentioned. Leading a busy lifestyle and living on a budget, one learns to plan meals if one wants to eat well. To quote Forrest Gump, CSA is “like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get.” Without considering the box, I found myself accidentally over-shopping at first and tossing the wilted veggies we couldn’t consume in the compost pile. In the very next breath, I complained that the box had not replaced my trips to the Co-op. And then it hit me: It’s not supposed to. How could I complain about such a wonderful farm-to-kitchen adventure? Probably because, even within the joyful realm of organic produce and sustainable living, my American desire for choice and convenience runs deep.

But there is a letting-go that happens, a jolly acceptance of whatever arrives, coupled with a deepening knowledge of what veggies are in season. That’s right: The seasons (and the weather) determine what we actually get in the box. It is easy to forget this when we are used to getting our veggies from supermarkets that import produce from all over the planet.

It’s Tuesday, and the new box is here. “You see, there’s more in the box than just vegetables; there’s peace of mind,” I quip sarcastically to myself as I imagine what a cheesy TV slogan for CSA might sound like. And then I hope it never comes to that. Marialena and I sort the vegetables like we are splitting up pirate’s booty. But in the end, we share and sometimes trade for our favorites. There are two heads of cabbage, some huge bunches of broccoli, a bag of colorful salad mix and another bag with stir-fry greens. There are also six mandarin oranges, some Myer lemons, two heads of leeks and a huge winter squash that I can’t wait to bake and then cut up for soup. Last Tuesday, I lightly steamed a big pot of broccoli, sweet potatoes and cabbage and then had veggie combo-plates for lunch all week, marveling each day at the fantastic flavor of the vegetables in their naked, unseasoned state.

With bellies full of broccoli and the knowledge that we are doing something worthwhile, my roommate and I remain committed to Annie and Jeff’s vegetables. We’re probably saving a few bucks compared with buying from the Co-op, and I know that Annie and Jeff practice fair labor on their farm. I take pride, too, in knowing that I can call and speak to the person who is growing my food. It feels as though if the people working the farm are happy, the vegetables that grow will be happy, too. It’s as if the CSA enables us to eat with integrity.

We live in a region with agriculture so rich it is easy to take for granted the foods that are making it into our shopping carts. With such deceptive abundance, we might never be moved to ask questions about the safety or environmental effects of our food supply. But to live deeper and acknowledge the urgent need for sustainable living is to embrace the idea that it is, indeed, time to eat with integrity. We can take a moment to consider the pesticides leeching into our water supply and the fossil fuel used to move that shiny fruit to our ultra-modern, super-huge grocery store. We can think also of the wealth and resources being removed from communities by the large corporate farms and the corporate supermarkets that support them.

Think about our own community: Even if we don’t have the space or time to garden, we can support small, family-owned farms, and we can form food-buying cooperatives. We can rally around the people who grow our food in ways that nurture the planet, foster community and support local economies.

Again, CSA does require a bit of flexibility, but at my house, we are rewarded for this flexibility every time we bite into a super-fresh carrot, every time we smell the arugula from two feet away. My friend Cory was over the other night trying some of the buckwheat muffins I baked with CSA grains. He chewed and smiled and said, “Tastes like justice.”