That Weekly Box of Vegetables: Worth It?



In this week's share: lettuce, cucumbers, strawberries, carrots, fiddlehead ferns, kale, tomatoes, and apples. To try Anastatia's recipe for carrot and lettuce salad with walnuts and feta cheese, click here.

May 20 marked the end of our winter CSA. Unsurprisingly, given the season, the offerings were sort of a jumble: fiddleheads, lettuce, strawberries, and cucumber spoke of the spring, while carrots and kale looked like the last vestiges of winter. As for the apples, I'm pretty sure someone had picked them last fall, but they were crisp and delicious.

It's turned hot in Cambridge, and neither Maggie nor I felt like cooking anything, but a substantial salad, composed of grated carrots and lettuce and a handful each of walnuts and feta cheese, made a meal that bridged winter and spring vegetables in a very satisfying manner.

As we ate, we discussed the virtues and drawbacks of our winter share. I have never been particularly good at household accounting, so while I'd done the initial calculations when we signed up, I hadn't thought much about how much we were getting, relative to our investment, throughout the winter. We'd had the share for 23 weeks, and paid $700 for it, which worked out to about $30 a week. Since we'd split it, we were each putting in $15 on vegetables each week. Both of us had had to supplement—half a 10-pound box of vegetables, it turns out, is not enough to feed one person for a week—but I certainly usually spend more than $15 each week on vegetables, so I felt we'd made a decent investment. In the weeks when Maggie was out of town, the box of vegetables had been more than sufficient for me. Lessons learned: 10 pounds of vegetables would feed me for a week, and this particular CSA was actually a pretty good deal, especially when compared to my usual vegetable-buying habits, which are somewhat profligate.

I didn't take on the complex task of figuring out what each box of vegetables would have cost if purchased at the supermarket or farmers' market, which would be an interesting project. After all, there were weeks when the box was mostly lettuce, a low-ticket item, but others when we received a quart of strawberries and a hefty bag of fiddlehead ferns, the pair of which would likely have cost about $15 if purchased elsewhere.

Economically, then, I was satisfied. In terms of quality and diversity of vegetables, we were both a little less enthused. The vegetables we'd received were sometimes perfect, often good, and occasionally disappointing. On reflection, though, I realized they consistently beat out the quality of the supermarket produce that would have been the only option otherwise.

Maggie and I did agree that we would have preferred more local produce—sometimes it seemed like our CSA managers erred on the side of diversity rather than localism. I'm not particularly interested in zucchini or eggplant or tomatoes when the weather is cold. While I did dearly love our weekly citrus fix, I'd have been happy to see more beets and potatoes instead. I assume most people who sign up for a CSA would feel the same—after all, it's a pretty self-selecting group—but that might be a callow assumption, and I'd be curious to know what other people who bought a share thought.

But I think the best thing about the share was the way it made a tradition: Maggie and I met at Porter Square at 5:30 pm almost every one of those 23 Thursdays and cooked dinner together. I don't think we would have done so nearly as often otherwise. It was good to mark the passing of the week with a friend.

On balance, then, I think the CSA was a good choice, and I am hoping to do one again next winter. Next time I think I'll do a little more advance research—I chose our CSA last fall entirely because I liked the vegetables, and the friendly staff, at the Enterprise Farms stand at my local farmers' market. But perhaps I can find a share that prioritizes local produce, or that includes an option to volunteer at the farm.

Providentially, our CSA ended the week before the Boston-area farmers' markets started up for the summer. Last week I visited one of the larger ones, to find a dazzling selection of salad and braising greens, and absolutely no other vegetables. Whither rhubarb, and asparagus, and strawberries? My New Yorker's impatience coexists uneasily with the slow-arriving New England summer. I did manage to buy two lively looking heads of red-leaf lettuce, though, to make another salad.

Recipe: Carrot and Lettuce Salad with Feta and Walnuts