Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science

The Stories

Local food serves as main fare of Tucson CSA

greens offered at the Tucson CSAPhoto by Sheyenne Lewis
Amy Schwemm looks over some
of the greens offered at the
Tucson CSA while Linday Peery
and Nicholas Bessie chat.

By Sheyenne Lewis, May 14, 2010

In the cool, shadowy courtyard of the Historic YMCA, a little girl sees a parsnip for the first time while watching a volunteer for the Tucson CSA nibble on the carrot-like vegetable.

Once a week, people make a quick stop at this pickup station of the Tucson CSA – for Community Supported Agriculture – to fill a bag with their share of the bounty. Along with parsnip, the haul on a mid-May day includes potted basil and other herbs to plant at home as well as more common produce.

In the past, one form of CSA had much more risk for those involved.  People who wanted locally grown, organic produce or meats would put their money together and purchase or lease land. In this approach, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes, the “shareholders of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary.”

Today’s consumers have a much easier and less risky option – a Subscription CSA. Tucson’s CSA operates under the subscription mode.  Instead of buying the farm, subscribers can just spend $200 to $250 for a seasonal share of the crops produced every week. This also comes with the freedom to renew – or not – each season.

Subscription CSAs now constitute more than 75 percent of all CSAs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Tucson CSA is more like a “co-op,” according to crew member Philippe Waterinckx. Crooked Sky Farm and organic ranchers in southern Arizona cooperate to supply the food.

The CSA then distributes the food to the pick-up location at the Historic Y on 300 E. University. While this location can be more convenient than driving directly to the farms, some may not find it as easy as visiting the supermarket.

Registrations occur in the month preceding the beginning of the session.
Spring session: March, April, May (13 weeks).
Summer session: June, July, August (13 weeks).
Fall session: September, October, November (13 weeks).
Winter session: December, January, February (11 weeks – there are no pickups during the weeks of Christmas and New Year).

Produce share
: $247 per share per session ($209 for winter session). Pickup is once a week.
Goat Cheese share: $40 per share per session.  Pickup is every other week (weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12), in summer and fall sessions only.
Meat shares: can be ordered at the CSA front desk once per session.  Prices vary.

At the supermarket, “most people just keep buying the same vegetables,” Waterinckx explained, while at the CSA “you eat 100 or more different kinds. It’s a big adjustment to learn to cook with the food you get.”

Gigi Owen, a CSA member since 2007, agreed. “I got a lot of stuff I didn’t even know existed; it makes my cooking very creative.”

Although there is no choice of which fruits and vegetables are supplied each week, there is an abundance of variety. A typical summer week can include:

There is also a table set up for people to trade during the pick-up days, which are held twice a week. Donations of food that not picked up, or have been placed in the “unwanted” bin, are given to local charities for homeless veterans or refugees.

Nothing gets wasted here.  As people collect their greens, leaves and other bits get knocked off or dropped and litter the table top.  A CSA worker gathers these up to feed to chickens.  By the end of a collection day, Waterinckx said, several buckets can be filled.

According to the Tucson CSA subscriber’s newsletter, a typical share can feed one person, if they rely solely on the CSA crops, or two to three people if they supplement it with other groceries or dine out a few times a week. 

Rebecca Diamond, a CSA subscriber, said she got tired of paying the higher prices in the supermarket for the organic produce.  One month of those purchases added up to almost the full cost of a season from the CSA, she said. After talking a vegetarian friend of hers into splitting the cost, they signed up.

“It’s been great. What I don’t like, she likes. Or we can put it in the surplus basket for them to donate. But there’s always enough food,” she added, clapping her hands. “And I know I’m saving money in the long run.”

Uniformity is something consumers are used to seeing in the produce aisles at a chain grocery store.  Every apple looks as appealing as the one next to it, and the batches that come in throughout the year will look the same as well. 

This is not the case with CSA fare. Because the local farmers that supply the CSA use heirloom plants, not commercial hybrids, there can be differences in size or shape. CSA farmers also reserve some plants for seeds for the next season or buy from other local farmers instead of buying seeds from large commercial businesses.

Photo by Sheyenne Lewis
Some carrots and various
greens sit on a table that
offers extra food to CSA

Even local farmers’ markets might be more commercial than people realize. Waterinckx described his an experience at a farmer’s market when he was a student and found out that some of the vendors would buy produce from Mexico, Texas or California and sell it along with their own.  “You have to ask them,” he said. “They won’t tell you.”

Food coming from farms closer to home can eliminate the need for processing to gain longer shelf life that foods that come from thousands of miles away usually require.  Less travel also means less gasoline used, which cuts down on the emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Buying locally and organically may be one of the bigger draws for subscribers such as Owen. She said she prefers the CSA to the supermarket because she likes that it is “local-ish food,” and because it enables her to “support a community organization.”

Tucson CSA Newsletter

U.S. Department of Agriculture

next story
return to main stories page