Eight-year-old Sagar Desai understands that by eating his Tucson Community Supported Agriculture vegetables he is helping his local farmers earn money to grow more crops that are important to nourishing his body.
"If we support them, then they can grow things we can eat," Desai said.
Sagar has grown up going to Tucson CSA every week with his mom and brother to get their weekly supply of produce. The family has been getting their produce through CSA since before Shefali and Gavin Desai had either of their sons, Sagar and Pavan. Shefali said the CSA is much more than their version of a typical grocery store. It is their community.
Shefali said she likes the idea of supporting local farmers and thinks using a CSA is the best way to do so.
"You pay [the farmers] on the front end so they have the money whether or not their crops fail," she said.
Philippe Waterinckx, who wanted to find a way to bring regional, organic products to the Tucson community, started CSA in 2004. Waterinckx said the Japanese concept strives to put the farmer's face on the food by bringing people closer to the source of their food.
Waterinckx said the most important part of a CSA for a farmer is the economic factor. Since small farmers don't receive subsidies from the government it is often challenging to make ends meet.
"With the CSA we really try to help those farmers," Waterinckx said.
Farmers who participate in Tucson CSA get 90 percent of the sale value of the product, which means it is very beneficial for farmers to participate in a CSA.
Besides economic benefits to CSA farmers, participating in a CSA means eating seasonally.
"Until about 50 years ago everybody ate seasonally," Waterinckx said.
CSA brings people back to this way of eating and puts them back in tune with the earth's natural way of growing produce.
Tucson CSA gives both farmers and consumers a new community of which to be a part. Farmers get the support of people who are investing in them to grow the best, most nutritious produce possible. The consumers are given a much more intimate relationship with their food and with the people who are growing it. Tucson CSA has created a community space equally important to the farmer as it is to the consumer.
"We're making this system where everyone benefits from working together," said C.J. Marks, co-founder of Sleeping Frog Farms, one of Tucson CSA's participating farms.
Marks founded Sleeping Frog Farms in 2008 with his friend, Adam Valdivia. He now co-owns the farm alongside Clay Smith. He said it has always been a part of the farm's success to be part of CSAs. Marks said that with CSA, the farm can get money before anything is planted, which helps take off the stress of worrying about whether or not the crop will fail. CSA helps these farmers ensure they are making a profit and are able to pay back that guaranteed money with crops for the community.
"People are investing in us, and then we're investing our time and our employees time to making that return," Marks said.
Marks said he also likes that with CSA, people are eating seasonally, the way people typically would be eating if there weren't conventional grocery stores today. Eating seasonally reconnects people to the land they live on and also supplies them with more nutrient-rich produce.
When someone buys carrots from a typical grocery store, they are getting something fairly low in cost, but also low in nutritional value. Marks said those carrots had to be picked months before they ended up in that grocery store, leaving them old, not as sweet, and not as healthy as carrots picked up from a CSA.
Lee Datura, the market manager for Sleeping Frog Farms, said eating seasonally is important but it can be unpredictable at times when it's time to pick what will be taken to the CSA that week. Harvesting for Tucson CSA pickup days happens the Monday and Tuesday before the pickup. Datura said her and her team of farmers always have a loose idea of what will be picked that day, but it's hard to know until they are there in the fields.
Harvesting can begin as early as 5 a.m. and continue until 9 or 10 a.m. Datura said the time they pick the produce is important to ensure it is not too hot or too cold for the produce.
Once the produce is picked, it is processed—a quick rinse to remove some of the dirt before it is bunched into equal portions for the CSA members. Datura said things typically get bunched at a pound and would say bunches one gets at a CSA are much bigger than those found at a grocery store.
On the day of the CSA pickup, Datura drives the refrigerated Sleeping Frog Farms truck to Tucson from Cascabel, where the farm is located. The produce is unloaded and counted, and then it waits to be picked up by the CSA customers.
"The [environmental] impact for all of us is the motivation," said Jennifer Fernando.
Fernando shares a CSA pickup with her roommate, Anna Urso, and friend, Will Yingling.
Fernando is originally from France, but has been living in the U.S. for the past couple years. She got involved in the CSA when she moved in with Urso, who had discovered the CSA through a co-worker.
When Fernando moved the U.S. she found that the food process and food labels were much different than those in France. In France, she would cook often with vegetables grown in her mother's garden or with produce found at her local farmer's market.
"I know it's very important to know where my food is coming from," Fernando said.
She said by supporting the local farmers she is also helping the environment since the produce is traveling a much shorter distance than produce in a grocery store.
Now she brings her French influence when she cooks the CSA produce with Urso and Yingling. The three friends enjoy gathering together on the weekends to prepare a meal with the CSA produce.
"We cook together. It's a good way to spend our time," Urso said.
They like getting to use new produce and trying out new recipes. Fernando has taught them how to make authentic French onion soup using onions and garlic from CSA. She has also made au gratin using CSA potatoes, squash, tomatoes and goat cheese.
Yingling said he likes being part of CSA with his friends because "it's a way to grow and connect with the community."
He likes getting to try new foods and also likes being surrounded by like-minded people, such as Philippe.
"It's another community to belong to," Urso said.
Mary Ann Clark didn't believe her friend who told her that organic strawberries tasted better until she began experimenting herself and found out her friend was right.
"I think that was the most eye-opening thing," Clark said. "Discovering food that was organic and local tasted better."
Clark has been an active member of Tucson CSA for around 11 years and said it has completely changed her relationship to food. She said it is important to eat locally because it helps the local economy, producers and the environment. The food Clark gets from CSA is much fresher and tastier than food she would find at a grocery store.
Clark said CSA has changed the way she eats and what she eats. She has become much more familiar with vegetables.
"I know now that I like okra," Clark said.
Though eating seasonally is the most challenging part of a CSA for Clark, she said it has forced her to become more creative with her food.
One of Clark's favorite ways to use her CSA produce is by making a quiche. It is one of her go-to ways of using up the bountiful greens she gets. Clark also enjoys using her solar oven to roast her vegetables.
Clark believes eating seasonally and locally is the way people should be eating. She knows it not only is beneficial to her health but also to the farmers and to the environment. By participating in CSA, Clark is able to directly support her personal beliefs.
"I want to support these people," Clark said. "I want to support my own food politics."
Sagar and Pavan have been supporting their local farmers since before they were born. They love getting to go to CSA every week to see their friends and pick up their produce for the week.
"This is their experience with food," Shefali said. "Their experience is supporting a farmer and getting something that was just picked that day."
Shefali has been getting her groceries from CSA since 2007 when she and Gavin began looking for healthier ways of eating. What started as their version of a grocery store has turned into a place of community for the family. Shefali said she feels connected at CSA in a way one doesn't necessarily feel in a giant conventional grocery store.
"Those people know me and they know my children," Shefali said. "They have seen them since they were born."
Shefali likes being able to support her local farmers and eat seasonally. She thinks CSA is the best way to do so. She said eating seasonally "ties you to where you live."
Shefali said she likes being able to pay her farmers on the front end so they can make a profit regardless of if their crop fails.
Desai's kids prefer to eat their vegetables raw, and she often makes simple salads with her CSA produce for that reason, but her traditional Indian-style okra is a household favorite in the summertime. Okra is Pavan's favorite thing to get from CSA because he loves the way his mom makes it. Another favorite is Shefali's crispy turmeric kale, a recipe she invented to get her kids to eat kale before it became one of their favorite foods.
The Desai family eats mostly from CSA. Shefali trusts her farmers and believes she and her family is much healthier because of the fresh food they eat.
"There are no downsides in my opinion," she said.