To make effective changes in your diet for the better, you have to set yourself up for success. This means setting up your kitchen effectively, including what you bring home and put into your fridge and cupboards. However, it also means creating an easy and practical way for you to get the right food in the first place. What grocery stores will you most frequent? Which sections of the grocery stores? Which markets or other food supply options will you also consider?

As part of this consideration and smart planning, something that many people have not yet heard about are CSA programs. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and it is one of the easiest ways to ensure that you stay on track with healthy eating, while having access to some of the best quality of food. Food that is local, seasonal, fresh and often organic.

This past summer, my whole-food, plant-based diet was better than ever thanks to exactly that — a CSA. I reached new levels of health and wellbeing by incorporating the freshest and most nutrient dense foods in this world. I learned that there is a CSA option available in my area, and I signed on with a local farm for their CSA food share program. It this article I will share with you my experience with it, why it made a monumental difference in my diet and can in yours as well.

What is a CSA Food Share Program?

In most of North America (Canada and the US) there are certain farms which allow community members to sign on for a CSA food share program. Over the last 20 years, CSA has grown in demand due to more and more people becoming aware of the importance of local, fresh, seasonal and organic food and being able to get such food directly from local farmers. In reality, this is nothing new and was how we have eaten for centuries. Unfortunately during the 1900s, in an effort to industrialize everything we have lost connection with and appreciation for small, local farms. Large-scale, massive monoculture farms based on various industries were created instead, and due to globalization, most food production became concentrated in a few dedicated pockets around the world, meaning that transport of food from far distances away was now inevitable for the most part. As we see the health and environmental, and often even economic downsides of this approach, conscious consumers are turning elsewhere. This is where a CSA is able to bring back fresh, local, and seasonal food and allow us to connect with and support our local farmers directly.

A CSA usually works by offering a certain number of “shares” to the public. Now, this has nothing to do with financial shares, and simply refers to “food shares”. A typical share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included as well, such as fruits, herbs, mushrooms, grains or beans. Some CSAs also offer animal products. Consumers who are interested then go ahead an purchase a share, which is in the form of a seasonal fee. Basically, you pay the farmer the set amount for a food share upfront, usually at the start of the growing season, and in return you receive some kind of a regular supply, usually weekly, of the food they produce. Many CSAs offer different sized food shares so both single people and larger families can have the right amount of food that they desire. Some CSAs provide delivery options, others require you to pick up your own food share each week, which may come in the form of a box, crate, bag or basket of seasonal produce throughout the farming season.

When it comes to the cost of the program, most of the time it will work out the same or cheaper, than if you were to purchase the same quality of food in a normal grocery store. In some isolated cases, it may work out to be slightly more costly, depending on where you live. But when all things are considered and put into perspective, almost always it is still very worth it. Naturally, like with any other business there are bound to be some bad examples out there of CSA programs that try to take advantage of people wanting fresh, local and organic food, and may add a premium or simply not live up to a certain quality or reliability. So as with all things, do your research, get to know who is responsible for the CSA you may be interested in, find reviews or inquire about doing a sample week to know what to expect.

My Experience with a CSA Food Share Program

I have wanted to sign on with a farm, ever since I heard about this program about 2 years ago. I just thought it was the most phenomenal thing out there when it came to getting the freshest food ever. I am to this day surprised that more people do not take advantage of such an opportunity, but I can also relate. Many people simply don’t know, or don’t take the time to explore such an opportunity, while others yet are overwhelmed with the stresses and tasks of daily life and prefer the routine habits they have created when it comes to acquiring food.

In 2010, after moving out of the suburb and city areas, and into the country, my desire for more natural, optimized and sustainable living in every area increased exponentially. Upon one of my first visits to a local farmer’s market, I met a wonderful young farmer, who not only recently took up organic farming, but was also offering a CSA food share program. I was thrilled about the synchronicity of this wonderful opportunity. We signed on with my husband on the spot and could not have been happier with our decision.

We picked up our food share each Saturday throughout the summer from him, when he came to the local farmer’s market. In the case of our CSA, each person arranged their own pick-up with the farmer from one of the several locations he made available.

Given our exclusive whole-food, plant-based diet, we decided to get a full, family-size food share, instead of a half share. I will never forget seeing our first food share. We were like two little kids on Christmas Day. Our mouths dropped open, our eyes shined brightly and huge smiles beamed on our faces. This was food heaven for us! The vegetables were so luscious, and so fresh, and everything looked so beautiful!

The baskets were filled to the brim with so many different vegetables. There were more different kinds of leafy greens than I have ever seen before, and vegetables I have never even heard of, eaten or known how to prepare. It was the greatest adventure in food someone like myself could ask for! I wish I took a photo of our fridge the day we picked up that first food share. The whole fridge, including all drawers and even door shelves were filled with some vegetable or herb. In truth, it was a bit too much for us both to finish in a week, but between being able to freeze some things and share a couple things with neighbors, it worked out perfectly.

Even though we signed on about halfway through the season, we relished every single Saturday when we went to pick up our food share. It was a truly an exciting and delightful experience! We even had a chance to take a trip to the farm itself and see how everything is grown. Oh, all those beautiful rows of vegetables! Our farmer also has some animals, which we got to meet, like Jenny the donkey, and the playful goats. There was also a handful of pigs and a few cows. It was a very enriching experience, and the only thing that could have made it better would be if the farm treated all the animals as companions and perhaps manure producers, rather than as any commodities that are killed and exploited unnecessarily.

At the time of writing this, we only have a couple of weekends left in our food share for the season. Afterwards, it will be over until the following season, for which we are signed on already. I really cannot emphasize how much we love this system and how it took our healthy, vegan eating to the next level. We ate even more than our usual high amount of fresh vegetables with each meal, from morning green smoothies and big salads for lunch, to beautiful STAR meals for dinner. What else stood out was the incredible variety of vegetables we got to enjoy each week! Given that most people eat the same handful of fruits and vegetables on almost a daily basis, this allowed us to diversify our diet to a degree that most people will never experience.

Even though there is a great variety of different vegetables available today in most grocery stores, the truth is that most people don’t utilize it. We are creatures of habit and tend to stick with what we are used to. Well, having a food share like this forces you to try new things and enjoy an immense variety of foods, as they become available throughout the growing season. Aside from different kale and lettuce varieties and common vegetables, we gained veggies like different Asian greens, including bok choi and pak choy, daikon radishes, kohlrabi and even the adorable pattypan squashes! We made ample greens a part of each meal for most alkaline benefits, which is something that I have wanted to increase even more.

In the end, the value, the variety, the freshness, the quality and the amount of vegetables we had and ate all summer was just phenomenal. We will miss it over the winter and look forward to our first full season next summer!