My CSA gives me more food than I can eat … is that bad?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Oct. 14 2008 7:30 AM

The Overflowing Box of Veggies

My CSA gives me more food than I can eat … is that bad?

Farmer harvesting pumpkins. Click image to expand.
Is your CSA giving you more food than you can use?

This fall, I bought a share in a CSA ["community-supported agriculture," a kind of farm co-op] for a few hundred bucks. Every week, I get a box of whatever produce the local farmer is currently harvesting. Here's the problem: It's nice to get fresh vegetables, but I often don't know what to do with the full haul—and end up throwing a good chunk of it in the trash. If I can't eat my share, is a CSA still an environmentally sound choice?

It may not sound very attractive to buy a share in anything just now. But with the advent of the local food craze, CSAs have been officially confirmed as an Important New Trend via a front-page story in the New York Times. (As the article points out, CSA participation is still pretty low: Only 1,500 CSA farms now exist across the country, with membership in each ranging from a few hundred to a couple thousand.) The idea is pretty simple: By making an upfront investment in a local farm, consumers can give the farmer a guaranteed customer base and the money he or she needs to operate. In return, participants don't have to spend time searching for fresh fruits and vegetables every week.

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Food is responsible for as much as 20 percent of our energy use, a huge percentage of agricultural emissions (think of all those cows and their methane), and a sizable proportion of our solid waste. CSA advocates point to several reasons why buying a share in a local farm may help minimize that impact. The most obvious one is that shipping produce locally saves quite a bit of gas and reduces the amount of packaging you need. Buying from a farm you know can also help you keep tabs on whether its practices—from the fertilizer it uses to what it does with animal waste—are eco-conscious and sustainable.

These claims aren't all cut-and-dried. Concerns about the impact of transporting food may be somewhat overblown: As the Lantern has noted before, a recent study estimates that just 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food comes from getting it from point A to point B. Meanwhile, it can be more energy-intensive to grow a crop locally if the weather or the terrain isn't well-suited to it. And if consumers are making lots of extra trips in their car to pick up local food, that could well minimize some of its advantages. (Along those lines, research out of Iowa State University suggests that CSAs that deliver produce fewer emissions  (PDF) than those where members do their own pickups.)

Fair enough. But for crops that aren't obviously ill-suited to the local environment, the Lantern sticks to his general principle: All else being equal, the more you know about how something is produced, the more likely it is to be environmentally friendly. In that respect, it's a major improvement to get your food from a CSA.

But any advantages of CSA produce might go out the window if you don't actually eat what you buy. A limited body of research (PDF) surrounding these farm shares suggests that food waste is a big problem: Many participants report receiving too many fruits and vegetables that they don't want or don't know how to cook. (Of course, the problem of waste is by no means limited to CSA members: Estimates suggest Americans may waste 27 percent of the food they buy.) When uneaten food goes in the trash, not only have all the energy and resource inputs been wasted, but that material will be left to decompose—and release methane—in a landfill. If you are going to join a CSA for environmental reasons, you should do so with a strategy for your extras. Ideally, figure out a way to donate your unused vegetables to a food bank or give them to friends. At the very least, make sure you're composting whatever goes bad. (Likewise, you should look for a CSA that proactively addresses the problem by actually asking whether you want that surplus.)

Even if you are wasting a little extra with the CSA, your membership may have other more subtle benefits for the environment. To start with, what you eat is at least as important as where it comes from—and being a member of a CSA allows you to pre-emptively devote much of your food budget to meals that are more eco-friendly, featuring less packaging, less processing, and (most crucially) less meat.

By investing your money upfront in a local farm, as opposed to simply buying local food, you're also helping to ensure that local farmers stay solvent. As a CSA shareholder, you assume some of their risk: If there's a drought, you'll get less food for your money; if the harvest is good, you'll get a share of the surplus. (Of course, the problem here is that many consumers don't need that bumper-crop bonus, so they may end up subsidizing the farm's losses without sharing much in its gains.) Either way, CSA membership supports the very existence of small farms in your area—and the possibility that you, or any of your neighbors, can buy local produce in the future.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.

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