Unless you happen to be a farmer or a particularly dedicated gardener, this summer you’ll face the annual decision about where to buy your produce. The supermarket seems so bland and somehow so wrong if you know there are working farms anywhere within, say, a forty-five-minute drive. Why not pick your own? Why not befriend a local farmer? Or why not make this the year you plant cardoons and salsify instead of just tomatoes and zucchini?
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Chances are, of course, you will do none of these things—you’ll just hope the expensive Whole Foods–style supermarket you go to actually has some local produce. Quality-minded supermarkets such as Whole Foods are indeed making more efforts every summer to offer at least some produce grown in the same state. That’s not the same, though, as knowing the people who grow your food, or buying the food grown closest to you.
Convenience trumps ideals in everyday life, and sometimes the farmers’ market is inconvenient. Sometimes you long for the days when phone numbers had five digits and city grocers wrote down your delivery list with soft-leaded pencils on brown paper bags. Their successors are online grocery services, which promise infinite choice along with delivery when and where you want it. But big companies burned through hundreds (and hundreds) of millions of dollars trying to get online home-delivery services up and running, and just a few survive, including Safeway, Peapod (affiliated with Stop & Shop and Giant), and mywebgrocer.com.
These services are not built around local produce. But some online companies are building their businesses around produce for people whose wants go beyond convenience. FreshDirect, for example, succeeds in delivering high-quality food of all kinds—and even some local produce—to New Yorkers. And around the country, mom-and-pop online services that deliver organic produce are surviving with pluck, hope, and a few vans. The most admirable choice of all is a CSA (for Community Supported Agriculture), which can be convenient and is certainly more directly helpful to local farmers than even the farmers market. Joining one might be this summer’s resolution. And if you happen to live near one of the growing number of online produce-delivery companies, come winter you could have a new kind of Web adventure, and help a struggling businessperson too.
FreshDirect began with the same idea that many Web delivery services had: offer home delivery of groceries ordered online at reasonably competitive rates by eliminating the cost of bricks-and-mortar markets. Produce could be a good bit fresher than from a supermarket. Fruits and vegetables need not pass through a wholesaler or dawdle at some entrepôt, wilting by the day. They need not sit in supermarket bins at or near room temperature, wilting by the hour. Instead, produce could come by refrigerated truck to the company’s refrigerated order center and then travel by refrigerated van to your refrigerator, sparkling with freshness. Entire days could be cut out of the trip from farm to table.
You couldn’t select your own produce, of course. Not being able to see and touch the goods is part of the trade-off in ordering anything online. It’s a sacrifice for anyone who squeezes peaches and scrutinizes lettuce for black leaves—an unacceptable sacrifice, many cooks say. But once children or long work hours enter the picture, even proud shoppers buckle. FreshDirect aims to ease the pain by providing more information than most markets do—one of the happier aspects of the trade-off. And it wants its delivered produce to match the pictures, which online goods often don’t; all of its photographs are of sample fruits and vegetables actually on the premises.
The expenses and risks of setting up an online company that ships fresh produce are exceptionally high—so high that Webvan, the most ambitious of the start-ups that set out to do this on a national scale, lost $830 million and went bankrupt before delivering a single box on the East Coast. It had already rigged out an elaborate warehouse in Baltimore—“a ghost town,” David McInerney, who oversees FreshDirect’s product development, told me when I visited the company’s headquarters and order center, near the Queens entrance to the Midtown Tunnel.
FreshDirect bought much of its equipment from Webvan and wrote a comparatively modest business plan—guaranteeing delivery within two hours, for instance, rather than the unrealistic half hour Webvan had promised. Order baskets travel on elevated hooks from one part of the plant to another; bags of beets whiz down wheeled conveyor platforms to a box waiting on a sort of trolley track ready to go to the deli department. The whole system—from kitchen to cheese room to butcher and fish cutter to dry-goods area—looks like a miniature ride in a food theme park, with neat cardboard boxes instead of, say, giant teacups. It is seldom shown to visitors, McInerney said, for fear of revealing a process that reportedly cost $100 million to create.
On my visit I was impressed by the breads, which are made from scratch by Craig Kominiak, an experienced baker, and baked until almost done, to be finished at home (the only way to compensate for the cold storage at every step, which destroys the texture of fresh-baked bread); the cheese selection bought from Artisanal, one of the country’s best cheesemongers and the city’s best; the coffees, which are roasted by Patrick Spillman, an enthusiastic and dedicated roaster, whose technique and selection I have long admired; and the workers chopping vegetables and cutting and marinating fish for entrées that looked equal to what many restaurant kitchens turn out. The real future of the company, McInerney, a trained chef with an impressive résumé, implied, is in prepared foods: the sesame-marinated skirt steak, the Tobago wild blackfin tuna kabobs, the thin-crust frozen pizzas that, he said, even the staff was buying.
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.