Connie Hofmann of Wayne joined a Community Supported Agriculture group, or CSA, last summer with the hope that access to a wider range of vegetables would enhance her 5-year-old daughter's appetite.
Alas, little Maeve O'Murchu still eats only cucumbers and carrots. But Hofmann, husband Colman O'Murchu, and son Liam, 8, say their CSA with Jonathan Einwechter's First Watch Farm in Lititz, Pa., has changed their eating habits for the better.
CSAs, which have been around at least 20 years, allow consumers to pay in advance for a season's worth of fresh, local produce (many operate in winter, too), delivered weekly to a central location. At the same time they give farmers seed money at the beginning of the season.
Typically, a household will buy a full or half share, paying several hundred dollars in the early spring. So the consumer makes a commitment to support local farming.
"One of the first vegetables we got was rhubarb, which I'd never used before," Hofmann said. "It was not part of my childhood and I never would have thought to buy it, but now I'm making rhubarb muffins and loving it."
Previously, Hofmann says, she had a CSA share for a farm near Ludwig's Crossing, but driving there on Friday afternoons for the pickup quickly became a pain.
Now her half share, "abundant enough for us," costs $350 for the season. And picking it up from a neighbor's garage, little red wagon in tow, she says, is a simple pleasure.
The CSA concept is simple, but its impact profound, according to the folks at LocalHarvest.com, a national site where you can enter your zip code and find a local CSA (or farmers' market). The government does not track CSAs, so there is no official count of how many there are in the United States, but LocalHarvest's directory lists 4,000 - many of which operate year-round.
But even a half share in a CSA may be too much of a good thing for an individual or a small family. Some CSA members found that their schedules made it impossible to cook often enough, and their excess piled up.
The search for alternatives gave us "member choice" CSAs, in which members can pick and choose what goes into their weekly box, and buying clubs, using the word club very loosely.
These arrangements allow people to order (and pay) online for only the produce they want instead of getting, for example, several pounds of cabbage from a CSA.
Options often include dairy, grass-fed beef, and eggs from free-range chickens. Most often, customers go to a central location to pick up their orders, but some arrangements provide home delivery.
Mug Shots cafe, with locations in Center City, Fairmount, and Manayunk, is one example of an online ordering club. Others are Harvest Local Foods in Lansdowne, which offers delivery; and Panache Foods in Berwyn, a delivery-only service, offering produce or fruit boxes that include some element of choice.
They are all evidence of our continuing passion for fresh, locally produced food. Here's a closer look:
Harvest Local Foods. This is a small business started five years ago in Lansdowne by Pamela Nelson of West Philadelphia and Mary Ann Ford of Drexel Hill.
The two women were strangers who met through the Fair Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market.
"I was ready to start something new, possibly food-related," says Nelson, who had worked at the Mariposa Food Coop in West Philadelphia.
"Ann Karlen at Fair Food told me about Mary Ann. We got together and it was a match made in heaven. We marvel at it still."
Harvest Local works with 60 local farmers and food artisans. In addition to fruit and vegetables, Harvest Local sells pork, lamb, and poultry from Highview Farm in North Hanover, N.J.
Customers order online and either pick up their orders in Lansdowne or pay a flat fee ($10 to $15) for delivery to their doorsteps on Wednesdays, Thursdays, or Fridays.
"In summer we use a van that runs on a biofuel made from vegetable oil from local restaurants," says Caralea Arnold, the marketing director.
The delivery area includes Haddonfield, Center City Philadelphia, and many Main Line communities.
Harvest Local also has a small shop at the Lansdowne location where customers who are picking up their orders can make spontaneous purchases.
Panache Food. This is a newcomer, in its second year delivering local organic produce. Sandra Thompson designed her company to erase all the potential problems of a CSA. There is no subscription fee or commitment. "Box notes" with every delivery feature recipes. And each week, customers are alerted by e-mail about what will be in their boxes so they can make changes or substitutions.
Customers who order a small, medium, or large box of produce from Panache, (at $22, $34, and $48 respectively) may also buy dairy, eggs, poultry, or beef, as well as artisanal goat cheese from Yellow Springs Farm and organic hummus from another new local company, Fresh A-Peel.
There's also an all-fruit box for $25. Delivery is included in those prices. Thompson works from an office in Berwyn and has warehouse space in Leola, Pa.
Sweet Stem Farm. Formerly Meadow Run Farm in Lititz, Pa., this is a year-round buying club with monthly delivery points in Center City, Mount Airy, West Chester, and Wynnewood. The small family farm focuses on humanely raised, pasture-fed pork, beef, and lamb.