Local produce is the trickiest challenge. A quarter of FreshDirect’s produce sales are organic. But most of the produce comes from California—as it does to supermarkets across the country and also to the mom-and-pop organic delivery services, among them Planet Organics (planetorganics.com), which serves a large swath of California around the Bay Area; Newleaf (newleafnatural.net), which delivers to Chicago and Evanston; Greenling (austinorganicdelivery.com), which serves greater Austin and was begun by three college rugby teammates; Urban Organic (urbanorganic.net), which serves all New York City boroughs and surrounding areas in other states; and Boston Organics (bostonorganics.com). The founder of Boston Organics, Jeff Barry, a Peace Corps veteran with a master’s degree in environmental economics and business, modeled it on Planet Organics and began by borrowing money from his grandfather for a delivery van and pasting up fliers in the most alternative and academic of Boston’s alternative and academic neighborhoods.
All these companies aim to be a cross between a farmers’ market and a standard delivery service, and most have been started by idealists on shoestring budgets. Like FreshDirect, they offer customers shorter farm-to-table time, the convenience of home delivery (Barry told me that many customers give his drivers keys to an entryway or a back door), and local produce in season. They deliver more of it, too: McInerney said that not until last year did he start contracting with local farms in the hope of giving customers something of the experience of the Union Square Greenmarket, which he and every other New York foodie visit religiously. (Tellingly, he featured Satur Farms, on the North Fork of Long Island, owned by Paulette Satur and Eberhard Müller, executive chef at Bayard’s and a former chef at Le Bernardin and Lutèce, who provides recipes both to customers and to the company.) But their scale and ambition are far smaller. The model is usually to deliver a weekly box of vegetables and fruits. Customers can change the size of the box, but they have limited control over its contents—they can alter the ratio of vegetables to fruits, say, or omit something they know they won’t eat.
But any year-round business must rely on large-scale growers in California and Florida during the winter and spring. The reputation of organic produce is suffering in a way that few of the longtime advocates for the adoption of national organic standards could have predicted. Aside from costs to the environment in fuel for long-haul refrigerated transport, there are costs to local economies too. The large and increasingly consolidated companies that run organic farms with national distribution seldom do any more to help local communities, let alone small farmers, than bad old industrial farming did.
It’s always something when you’re trying to be an “ethical gourmet,” as Jay Weinstein, a chef and journalist, titles his new cookbook. “Buying organic anywhere is good,” he writes, trying to summarize a simmering argument. “But buying from a source that circumvents the environmental costs of transporting, processing, and distributing the food is especially beneficial to the environment.” He describes attitudes about the higher cost of organic produce: “Take it from me. I’ve been a personal chef to clients who represent the top 1 percent of U.S. income, and they’re more concerned about the price of milk than the middle class is.”
Short of growing your own food, the most ethical way to get produce is probably to join a CSA, in which members sign up in the late winter and spring for weekly boxes. (The price of a subscription varies widely but often starts at about $350.) You give up the choice and immediate gratification of going to a farmers market, and you have to trust that the farm you subscribe to grows food you like and is good at it. But CSAs, which originated in Switzerland, Germany, and Japan in the 1970s and began in earnest in this country in the mid-1980s, provide direct support and assurance to farmers in a way that farmers markets do not. Subscribers share in the risks as well as the abundance of the farm, knowing they will get a reduced selection at the beginning and end of each growing season, and agreeing to pick up their boxes, either at the farm or at a central point such as a local cooperative market. According to a 1999 study from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, relative to the average U.S. farmer CSA farmers tend to be young, financially vulnerable, highly educated, more-often female, and overwhelmingly white.
According to Elizabeth Henderson, the author of Sharing the Harvest (a definitive guide to CSAs that is about to appear in a revised edition), in the early days the challenges of supplying a decent variety of produce every week were daunting enough that some farmers gave up. But Henderson sees a “burst happening now,” both in farms ready to become CSAs and in subscribers eager to join. (To find one near you, go to wilson .edu/csacenter, a resource center at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, that is named for Robyn Van En, a Massachusetts farmer who was the Jenny Appleseed of the CSA movement.) Henderson warmly described the sense of community that forms around CSAs—especially when members are trading recipes, usually online. “So much of CSAs is talking about food,” she said.
Learning to cook, of course, is learning to cook what’s in front of you. CSAs require improvisation—and remaining undaunted by a box of mostly beet greens, radishes, and peas. But they also offer a rich experience of seasonal flux and abundance as nothing else short of vegetable gardening does. And they can get you out of a meal-planning rut, especially if you try to sit down to dinner at home as often as possible—the route to happiness and good health, as we are constantly told. “If you buy local food in season, meals will vary without planning and effort,” Nina Planck, who grew up on a Virginia farm, promises in her new Real Food. It’s a lesson easily taken to heart at the height of the summer’s abundance—one that might even linger as the days grow short.