A fresh approach to food

Renee Warwick and her daughter Olivia, 5, of Chestnut Hill, carry fresh vegetables and produce. They are part of the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative in Chestnut Hill. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer
Renee Warwick and her daughter Olivia, 5, of Chestnut Hill, carry fresh vegetables and produce. They are part of the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative in Chestnut Hill. SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 24, 2012

Karen Rile  is a writer and teacher living in Chestnut Hill

When I was growing up, I rarely met a vegetable that wasn't canned. The Green Giant brought us mushy peas, army-green beans, and zucchini that squeaked when you chewed it. I had nightmares about that creepy, chlorophyll-deprived "French" asparagus floating in a jar in our West Mount Airy pantry, like a Mütter Museum specimen.

I didn't encounter fresh asparagus until college, in the late '70s. My mom displayed a pile steamed on a platter at Easter dinner. "They're from New Jersey," she announced. "I had to wash them twice to get rid of the sand." We leaned in closer for a better look. The stalks were bright green and fat as fingers, clearly a step up from the squishy, bile-colored version in cans.

Five-year-old Olivia Warnick, a kindergartener at J.S. Jenks in Chestnut Hill, has never seen canned asparagus. I met up with her Tuesday morning on the porch of a Victorian twin across the street from my house. She and her mom, Renee Warnick, 36, had walked over for their weekly vegetable and fruit shares from the Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op.

"Broccoli!" Olivia exclaimed happily, pulling a leafy, lavender-tinged specimen from the community-supported agriculture (CSA) box. There were also fragrant lettuces, a dense green cabbage, candystripe Chioggia beets, sweet onions, Yukon gold potatoes, fava beans, and a bunch of pencil-slim asparagus spears.

"CSA has made her a more open-minded and adventurous eater," says Renee, a professional violist and music teacher. A longtime CSA member, Renee chose Lancaster Farm Fresh because its Tuesday delivery in Chestnut Hill allows her to plan the week's meals and to experiment.

"Would I ever think of buying a Jerusalem artichoke? Or kohlrabi?" she asks. "Yet I've learned to prepare these things in ways my family enjoys."

I admit I hesitated, in 2009, when our neighbor Elizabeth Beck, a Penn librarian, asked if we wanted to share a Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op CSA. Years ago, I had subscribed to a single-farm CSA. But the harvest turned out to be turnips, kale, and not much else. Like so many other well-intentioned subscriptions (those unread New Republics yellowing in my office), I'd let this one lapse.

But I wanted to be polite to Elizabeth, and the price was excellent: far cheaper than at any supermarket. So we signed on. Divvying up the spoils was fun. And what a difference 10 years makes. This time, we received sweet Haruki turnips tender enough to eat raw in a salad, oyster mushrooms, garlic scapes, mild "breakfast" radishes, rainbow chard, Japanese eggplant, bitter melon, savory ground cherries, and fractal-demonstrating Romanesco cauliflower.

Unlike the single-farm CSA, Lancaster Farm Fresh is a co-op, founded in 2006 by a dozen Ephrata farmers struggling to survive.

"We were competing with each other, in terms of labor and fuel, to deliver our produce to the same niche market of customers," says general manager Casey Spacht.

"Our first season the co-op had about a hundred CSA subscribers. Today we have 76 member farms, ranging in size from a half-acre to 25 acres."

LFFC now delivers organic produce, meats, and dairy products weekly to over 2,000 subscribers, all within 150 miles. And its distribution system allows these small family farms to remain in business.

"Most of our farmers are Old Order Amish. Not one of them owns a tractor: They do all of the work with mules and horses. The majority of our farmers would not be farming today if it were not for the CSA."

The farmers distribute via refrigerated trucks that unload at drop-off points. With pooled resources, individual farms can focus on specific crops and cultivars. And that includes many, many kinds of kale: curly, red, dinosaur, and my favorite, Lacinato ("Sideshow Bob"). Try sautéing it in olive oil with caramelized onions and garlic, toss in some penne and maybe a little fromage d'Affinois.

At the end of last season, Elizabeth and her husband, Tom, an architect, asked if we would like to apply with them to co-host a LCFF site. As co-hosts, we would split a free vegetable share and keep any leftovers from the swap basket. Is that not a sweet deal?

But competition was fierce. You need at least 20 full-share subscribers to host a site. Four days before the deadline we had only half the subscribers necessary. You would think Chestnut Hill could easily support several CSA drop-offs, but it was touch and go. We e-mailed neighbors and put up posters, and after a flurry of last-minute applications, we were assigned a porch, with 13 full shares, 31 half-shares, plus assorted fruit, cheese, flower, and egg shares.

As one raised on canned asparagus, I love the idea of bringing the farm to town. I wish all the children of our city could share Olivia's joy in receiving a gorgeous, farm-grown head of broccoli. In Philadelphia, children struggle daily with food insecurity. They live in what are chillingly called "food deserts." And yet a steady diet of nutritious CSA vegetables, whether from LFFC or other CSAs and community gardens, can be had for a fraction of the price of a daily fast-food lunch.

That, as they say, is food for thought.

E-mail Karen Rile at karen.rile@gmail.com

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