How to Buy Local & Get Healthy

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By Sarah Skidmore, AP Food Industry Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Whether you have a New Year's resolution to eat healthier or you simply want to buy more of your food fresh and locally, you may want to consider joining a community-supported agriculture program.

In CSAs, members pay a farm a regular fee in exchange for a weekly share of what's harvested.

They're an increasingly popular way for consumers to get fresh, local produce and strengthen their ties to where their food comes from. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates more than 12,500 farms nationwide have marketed products through such arrangements.

And they help farmers steady their cash flow and expand their customer base. Plus, participants say you can't beat the flavors.

"One of the things people are very surprised by is the taste of good, fresh food," said Christine Mayer, program manager for sustainable living at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. "A homegrown carrot tastes nothing like the thing you get at the grocery store."

Here are a few tips on joining:

YOUR ROLE: CSA members typically pick up their produce at the farm, a farmers market or another designated site. Some CSAs even deliver.

The majority include some community involvement, such as a day each year when members can visit or a group potluck. Some CSAs encourage members to lend a hand on the farm; a small number require it so make sure you're comfortable with what yours requires.

WHAT YOU GET: Your share, typically a box of goods, is usually just produce. Some farms may include flowers, eggs or other products. The farm will tell you what a typical shipment includes before you sign up.

Some farms allow members to personalize their box — increasing or shrinking the proportion of salad greens, for instance. Others let members come to the farm to select only the items they want so less goes to waste.

Be warned: it can take time to adjust to eating seasonally. Wintertime shares could be heavy in greens you've never tried, and tomatoes might ripen much later in the summer in your area than you realized.

"If you are just wading into these waters and are used to just having a head of iceberg lettuce in your refrigerator door, try the farmers market first to see how wide your palate is in terms of what veggies and fruits do you eat," said Erin Barnett, director of Local Harvest, a national database of CSAs.

And by joining a CSA, you share in the risk. If weather ruins the peppers, there will be no peppers in your share. Likewise if it's a good year for beets, get ready for pink fingers.

WHAT YOU PAY: The fee varies by CSA and some farms allow members to buy smaller or larger allotments.

Local Harvest said to expect fees from $15 to $40 a week depending on the farm and how much you get, with higher fees in more urban areas.

HOW TO FIND A CSA: Start by talking to friends and farmers market vendors. You also can ask participating farmers to describe past seasons and give you references for other members.

"Each one is unique and it is a good thing for folks who are considering this arrangement for the first time to speak to people who have participated in the past," Mayer said.

There are CSAs nationwide, although they're concentrated on the East and West coasts and less common in the Midwest.

Several searchable databases like Local Harvest's list CSAs across the country. Or you can search online for the Web sites of individual farms.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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