A Summer of Food: Thinking About CSAs, SNAP, and Cooking

It started out so innocently.

Steven and I decided to split a CSA farm share from Zenger Farm back in March. We’re both vegetarians and had been interested in trying a CSA but previously didn’t have anyone to split it with, so it seemed like a good opportunity for both of us. There are plenty of CSAs in the Portland area, but Zenger Farm is just a couple of miles from my house and I was well aware of their great work.

Little did I know how much I would be thinking about, obtaining, processing, and consuming food over the next several months!

Zenger Farm’s Farm Share Program

Zenger Farm is located in a part of Portland with many economically disadvantaged neighbors. Often deemed “felony flats,” the neighborhood and its citizens struggle economically. There are many recent immigrant communities and more recently, the people who have been gentrified out of north and northeast Portland have been filtering in.

Zenger staff have found opportunities to help their neighbors—first, they helped start the Lents International Farmers Market in 2007. When the organization obtained more land in Furey Field, they started a CSA program—and that program was one of the first in the state to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly called food stamps), to pay for shares.

What does this mean? It means that Zenger Farm is helping their neighbors by opening doors to quality food. SNAP benefits generally average about $4 per person per day, which prices many recipients out of being able to afford actual nutritious food, in sufficient quantities. Instead, to stretch those dollars SNAP recipients will buy the cheapest foods, which are frequently high in sugar and fat, and low in nutritive value.

Speaking of money, here’s the economic breakdown of the farm shares. Each regular share costs $650 for the season, and feeds between two and four people. (Steven I split it in half but it is still a LOT of food.) My portion was $325, divided by 23 weeks is $14.13 per week. There are roughly 13 items in each week’s share, meaning each item you receive is averaging out to $1.08. Okay, so that’s a little pricey for, say, a bulb of garlic, but not for many of the other items—say, the Bob’s Red Mill product we get each week(!), the big stalk of Brussels sprouts, or the beautiful squashes currently sitting in my fridge.

SNAP shares cost slightly less and some scholarships are available. The Lents farmers market also matches the first $10 spent at the market each week by SNAP recipients, stretching their dollars even further!

Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/day

GoodandCheapCookbookNPR published an article in August that piqued my interest: “Cheap Eats: Cookbook Shows How to Eat Well on a Food Stamp Budget.” This article, and the cookbook being covered, made me think more about the SNAP aspect of the farm share program.

Leanne Brown created Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day for her master’s thesis at NYU. Essentially the guide, which is being distributed for free via PDF, is a tool SNAP recipients can use to create healthier meals and still keep within their budget. She also builds flexibility into the recipes so if one thing isn’t in season or on sale, you can experiment with something that is. She indicates price per serving on each recipe, based on average ingredient prices she recorded in neighborhood markets in less prosperous neighborhoods of New York City.

I’ve tried a few of the recipes and plan to try more. What interested me in trying this collection myself was that they use a lot of basic ingredients, they are vegetarian or can be easily adapted to be, and the photography made all of it look fabulous. I was also curious about the reality of the SNAP figure of $4 per person per day. All the recipes have been great, and so far I’ve only found one to be disappointing in terms of portion size—which I think is due to supermarket eggplants being larger than our farm share eggplants.

Expanding My Horizons

Leading up to our weekly pickups at the Lents farmers market, I scrutinized the previous year’s information on the Zenger Farm Shares blog. The anticipation was killing me! Then June came and we started our weekly visits. The season began with a lot of kale and radishes. After just a few weeks I said I was a little kaled out, but I’ve since grown to look forward to our greens, whether they be kale, chard, collards, or raddichio.

I’ve eaten plenty of new veggies, and I’ve spent oodles of time making new recipes. At the moment my freezer holds homemade tomato sauce, three kinds(!) of pesto, potato leek soup, zucchini, herbed butter, and roasted peppers. This summer I’ve made chiles rellenos, zucchini tots, kale pie (above, for lunch with sugar snap peas and french breakfast radishes), eggplant pizza, beet brownies(!) and so much more. In the kitchen, I improvised a bundt pan for a cake, I deep fried things, learned what parboiling is and why you might want to do it, and learned how to store kale so you don’t have to eat it the same day. And more. It’s amazing, all the new territory I’ve covered in just a few months.

In fact, at the beginning of the season I decided to keep track of all the new vegetables and new recipes I’d be trying. I imagined a sort of Iron Chef scenario: okay, I’ve got onions, carrots, and a rutabega—GO! It wasn’t quite like that, but the “New Things Tried Because of Zenger Farm CSA” list has grown quite a lot. (And as I write this, I have a fridge full of veggies because of back-to-back pickups last week, and still one pickup left before the season is over…so that list will be growing.)

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned using any of the Bob’s Red Mill products? After seeing a YouTube video where a woman talked about saving her Bob’s products for winter…that’s what I decided to do too, mostly. In addition to having a mighty full freezer and refrigerator, I have very little cabinet space because of all the half-packages of Bob’s items: wheat flour, pinto beans, black beans, quinoa, orzo, popcorn, and more.

Participating in a farm share this summer required adjusting my schedule to accommodate obtaining, planning for, and using my food each week. I learned and thought more about food insecurity in the United States. I strengthened my culinary skills. I ate better food, and more of it, and I have reserves for winter. It may have started out innocently, but participating in the Zenger farm share program this year now threatens to be a life-changing experience.

View more photos of the food obtained, grown, and consumed this summer.

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UPDATE (November 24, 2014): MSN recently published an article highlighting Thanksgiving recipes that cost less than $1 per serving.

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