It isn’t easy to decide where to spend your food dollars. I used to debate spending my produce dollars at the weekly farmers market versus supporting one local farm through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. When I read the new USDA nutritional guidelines recently, I realized the answer is definitely BOTH.
The USDA just released the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To support these new recommendations, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has replaced the well-known 5 A Day campaign with a Fruit & Veggies – More Matters initiative. According to the CDC, my kids and I should each consume 1.5 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables every day. My husband should apparently be eating 2 cups of fruit and 3.5 cups of veggies. So our family produce needs are a whopping 6.5 cups of fruit and 11 cups of veggies daily. That is a lot of produce.
When we visit the farmers market we can browse seasonal offerings, sample, and pick the foods that interest us. When we support a CSA (I belong to Tanaka Farms) we are buying a share of a local family farm – providing a small farmer with a guaranteed cash flow and a stable customer base and receiving in return a ration of what was ready for harvest that week. Both are fun. Both support the local economy. And both are necessary for my family to come anywhere close to 122.5 cups of produce a week.
When my Tanaka Farms produce box arrives on Tuesdays, I am never sure what we will find inside. It’s like a produce present that my kids cannot wait to open. And like a CARE package from a kooky distant relative, there are highlights (like strawberries and adorable carrots), useful if not exciting necessities (like lettuce and onions) and completely random stuff that we have no idea how to use (like kohlrabi)!
But to me the box is a rare win-win-win situation.
First of all, the produce is from a family farm in Irvine, only 23 miles away. Farmer Tanaka and his son have spent the last 11 years growing produce and educating school groups on a 25-acre farm on University Drive. They are generations two and three of a family that has been farming in Orange County since the 1940s. And during that time they have seen many small family farms fold up their roadside stands, crowded out by developers and industrial agriculture. The Tanakas have survived by reinventing themselves: providing farm experiences for school children; running u-pick pumpkin, strawberry and watermelon tours; and getting into the CSA arena.
Second, the produce is organically grown and fresh. Farmer Tanaka prides himself on providing the freshest produce around, usually harvesting on Monday for his Long Beach deliveries Tuesday. That’s what sold Stephanie Mendoza, the site coordinator for Lowell Elementary. Having studied raw cooking for years, Stephanie believes the nutrition density of truly fresh foods is something “we can feel good about feeding ourselves and our families.” And, she adds, fresh lettuce from Tanaka Farms teaches us “what lettuce is supposed to taste like.”
The third win is that Tanaka Farms gives 10 percent of CSA proceeds back to each local school. In our area, there are three schools currently participating in the program – Lowell Elementary, Fremont Elementary and Maple Village School. All of these schools accept orders from parents, teachers and members of the surrounding community. Once you’ve contacted the school’s site coordinator, you can sign up online and begin to receive your own produce present every week. Tanaka’s CSA is only a month-to-month commitment and produce boxes range from $20 a week for a small box to $30 a week for a large box.
I recently spent a wonderful morning on the farm, eating strawberries right from the field and learning organic gardening tips (like planting Maui onions between strawberry plants to maximize planting density and deter unwelcome pests). Farmer Tanaka and Eileen Sagara (CSA Program Manager) showed me the scenic hillside where they host bi-annual CSA barbeques for subscribers who want to spend time on the farm and see where their food comes from. They also shared some of their recent successes, like expanding their CSA program to local corporations (including the SCAN Health Plan in Long Beach) and challenges (apparently I am not the only one stumped by kohlrabi).
Farmer Tanaka emphasized what it takes to be a successful CSA subscriber:
- Remove your produce from the box and move it into the refrigerator.
- Eat the strawberries right away, because they are picked at the peak of freshness.
- Be willing to cook and experiment.
Farmer Tanaka has a blog and recipes on his website to support those of us who are produce-challenged but eager to try.
If you want to try Tanaka Farms, here are the contacts:
- Maple Village School – Christina (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Fremont Elementary – email@example.com
- Lowell Elementary – Stephanie Mendoza (firstname.lastname@example.org)