Spinach and Quinoa Salad with Toasted Cashews and Dried Cranberries

My family tries to eat as much seasonal and local produce as we can. So last summer we signed up for a local farm share, or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) .  Each Tuesday afternoon I would pick up a giant box of farm-fresh produce and would (sometimes frantically) try to use it all up before it was time to pick up the next box. We ate well and I developed some wonderful new recipes featuring abundant greens, especially kale and spinach.

One of my favorite ways to celebrate Earth Day, which falls this Saturday, is by savoring the fruits (and vegetables) of our planet, and supporting earth-friendly farming and food production by purchasing my family’s food through CSAs and farmer’s markets.

CSAs help small local farmers have a steady, predictable income by selling “shares” of their seasonal produce to community members.  Subscribing members may pay by the week, for the entire season, or even donate or barter their time in harvesting and planting.  This communal relationship is getting quite trendy with CSAs growing from about 50 in 1990 to over 2200 in 2008 (according to localharvest.org). Some experts estimate that there are over 6,000 CSAs around the U.S. in 2012.

There are many benefits to participating in CSAs:

1)    They connect local farmers with consumers.
2)    Communities develop a local food supply.
3)    A larger sense of community is formed connecting rural and urban areas.
4)    The practice encourages land stewardship so small farmers are not “forced” into selling their land to suburban developers.
5)    The knowledge and experience of traditional farming (and many organic, sustainable practices) are preserved.
6)    There is greater biodiversity through the rotation of a wide variety of crops throughout the growing season.

Through membership in a CSA you can get fresh, often organic produce at a reasonable price.  The only challenge is that Mother Nature determines what you get in your CSA basket each week.  Some families get frustrated with too much of one vegetable or produce they are unfamiliar with (like Swiss Chard or garlic scapes).  However, many CSAs have responded by allowing customers to select their own mix of produce each week to better suit their tastes and needs.

To help you get the most out of your CSA, here are some practical tips:

1)    Use the most perishable produce first when planning your weekly meals.
2)    If you feel you have too much for your family, consider splitting a share with a neighbor.
3)    Think of your farm basket as a weekly “surprise” or an opportunity for a culinary adventure as you create new salads and soups with these fresh vegetables.
4)    Think of freezing portions for use in those dreary months when much produce is expensive and bland (there are many great guides to freezing fresh vegetables available online.)

If a full seasonal membership in a CSA seems a bit intimidating, at least take advantage of your local farmer’s market, where you can select your own “basket” of produce, and also have the benefit of supporting local farmers while eating ultra-fresh and flavorful foods.

With spinach and herbs in season right now, I encourage you to try this healthy and flavorful spring salad, adapted from a recipe shared with me by Julia Jayne, a subscriber to The Six O’Clock Scramble. If you’d like a slightly sweeter flavor, add 1 tsp. of honey or agave nectar.

Do you buy local produce through a CSA or farmer’s market? Do you grow any of your own fruits, vegetables and herbs?

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