With 2013 officially under way, we’re definitely thinking about ways we can get more involved with our health and our community at large. Maybe you’re like us and have been hearing a lot about different CSA boxes and subscription services and have some questions as to what it is, what are the best ones out there, and how it will be different from going to your local market. With all the emphasis these days on locally sourced food and farm-to-table ingredients, we thought it would be best to go straight to the source—Out Of The Box Collective’s Jennifer Piette. Her CSA boxes are the ultimate in farm-fresh and easy-to-use with plenty of fruits and vegetables, but also meat, fish and poultry and sustainably sourced pantry goods. With beginner-friendly recipes and incredibly beautiful ingredients, Out Of The Box is definitely leading the pack when it comes to CSAs. So, we sat down with their informative and gracious founder to dish on why CSAs are so important and how changing the fundamentals of food—instead of what do I want to eat, the question now becomes what is seasonal, growing, and good right now—can also deeply impact our communities as well as our health.
The Chalkboard Mag: As you mentioned, the term CSA is used pretty loosely these days. What does it really mean, for those who don’t know?
“CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The basic idea is that consumers purchase a ‘share’ of a farm’s harvest in return for a weekly selection of seasonal produce through the farming season. Usually this implies that the consumer shares the risks if something goes wrong (weather or pests usually being the culprits) and benefits from bumper crops, as well. It also usually implies that the consumer is buying a share directly from the farmer and committing to a full season, so that the farmer’s cash flow is more secure. This is just one of many ways people can eat seasonally, sustainably and locally, and support their farmer, which is really the goal here.
Multi-Farm CSAs: Instead of buying directly from one farm, members receive produce from a group of farmers, who coordinate the contents of each box together. This model can offer more variety than buying from a single farm. If you go for this model, check out where the CSA is based. There is a great one operating in the LA area, but most of the produce comes from the Central Valley. Another one is actually based in Northern California. It is important to find out where the produce is being grown, how quickly it makes it to your table and whether it meets the customer’s definition of “fresh” and “local”. Another question is what sized farms are producing the contents of these boxes and what their growing practices are.
CSAs specializing in different things: CSAs are popping up in various categories, supporting fishermen, ranchers, artisans, bread-makers. You can join a bread CSA where, for a defined budget, you will get a loaf of bread weekly or a fish CSA, where a local fisherman will bring you the Catch of the Week every week, etc.
Home Delivery Companies: There are increasing numbers of companies working together with farmers, ranchers and artisans to source and deliver local produce and other goods directly to their customers’ homes. These companies are not growers themselves, but are strengthening the almost non-existent local distribution infrastructure by aggregating different local and regional products into one place, and then distributing them. They are offering their customers more flexibility, variety and less risk, and freeing up the farmers to do what they do best – farming!
This is really where Out of the Box Collective fits in, though many people consider us to be a CSA because of our direct relationships to local farmers and artisans. I would say that because we are not growers ourselves, and people do not have to commit to a full season, that we are not a true CSA. The boxes we create weekly include much more than local produce selections – we also source from the other food groups, like Catch of the Week, California Cheese of the Week and Weekly Pastured Meat Selection, all of which are sourced locally, seasonally and very much in the spirit of a CSA. Our role is to choose what looks best every week, sourcing from dozens of different farmers and artisans, and create a cohesive selection accompanied by a mealplan and recipes to guide our customers through their box. Then of course, there’s the farmer’s market, and increasingly, there are ‘local’ sections of supermarkets. All of these are ways for people to support their local farmers and eat seasonally.”
TCM: Do you grow all the food distributed through Out Of The Box Collective? If not, how do you find the local artisans and farmers that you use?
“We don’t grow any of the food that we distribute, though we do produce orange juice using local oranges, and some ready meals using the local ingredients we are sourcing, all made in our commercial kitchen. We go up to Santa Barbara every week to pick up from dozens of different farmers and artisans who all share a very basic quality (which is our most important buying criteria): they must be stewards of the land. Organic Certification has been so watered down by the ‘Big Food Industry’ that whilst many of the farmers we buy from have the certification, we also buy from others whose practices often exceed these criteria. We never buy from anyone who uses pesticides or chemicals on their crops. Most of our farmers have small farms that are very diverse in their production, often with a specific interest in heirloom crops.
The Santa Barbara market, where we source much of our product because that is where many of these farmers convene anyway, is very special as most of the farmers’ tables are manned by the farmers themselves, not just ‘market staff’ – we love connecting with them there when we pick up! These farmers are committed to working sustainably, and there is a wonderful community of artisans using their produce to create new products – everything from jams using local fruit to pasta using local wheat and eggs. It is a small community and it doesn’t take long to build relationships that are mutually beneficial. So at the end of the day, every last item in our boxes is traceable, and we indicate which farm everything comes from on the list that goes with every box. We also profile our suppliers so people get to know the farmer and artisan rock stars who are growing and prepping their food. And of course, we also source from various artisans working in the LA area, as well as including a weekly Fair Trade selection so we can support stewards of the land in our larger community who are growing crops that don’t naturally grow more locally.”
TCM: What does someone who isn’t initiated into CSAs (or locally/seasonally) need to know about getting started?
“People have to overcome their fear of the unknown! For many, eating locally and seasonally can be a new experience where there will be items that they have never cooked or tasted before. Instead of being afraid, I would urge them to embrace the adventure and realize there is a learning curve involved, and that’s part of the experience.
We try to help our customers by providing recipes that use everything in their boxes, with a different theme every week, and info about what makes many of these ingredients special. We also have added flexibility for people who don’t want any surprises, so they can order their own selections by building their own boxes. Lastly, for people who struggle to find the time to cook, we are developing selections of prepared meals using all the same local ingredients, prepared by local artisans or in-house by our own team.”
TCM: What is your normal work week like? How much time to you spend sourcing items, farming, working on packaging and distribution? How big is your organization?
“My normal work week involves everything from choosing which meal plan we will use to working with a chef to create a new one, deciding what’s going to be bought that week in each category, talking with our farmers and ranchers to see if they have, for example, three dozen packs of top sirloin available, or what is growing in abundance that week! I also spend time communicating with our suppliers and with our customers, working out what everyone has ordered and placing orders from the farmers and artisans – sometimes commissioning products from them – driving up to Santa Barbara to pick everything up from both the market and another 6-7 different stops, packing everyone’s box (each one is different!) with a view to avoiding packing errors, posting photos of the boxes and delivering the boxes across LA. Um, needless we have two mottos at Out of the Box: ‘STAY IN THE SOLUTION’ (What do you do at 6am on delivery day when you open a case of radishes to pack the boxes, only to find they are cucumbers?!) and ‘CHECK AND DOUBLE-CHECK EVERYTHING’. Every week, it’s something – so we learn to be flexible, and hope that our customers will be understanding when there are the rare but inevitable glitches!
As for hours, I’d prefer not to count as the reality is daunting. The size of my organization is basically me and two full-time employees, but we should really include the dozens of farmers and artisans and customers that are also part of this collective. At the moment, we are trying to scale the business to make it more sustainable (and so I can keep my hours more reasonable, since I also have 3 kids to raise), and hope to be hiring more staff soon!
In the coming months you will be hearing more and more about us – including our upcoming Mail Order service for artisan-made gifts and local, sustainably-produced wines. We hope that will help us weather the holidays when many of our customers are out of town, as well as giving an end of the year boost to our local artisans.”
TCM: How do you find that eating seasonally and locally impacts the way people feel about the food that they eat? Does it change their relationship to food and their health?
“It’s all about community. Eating seasonally and locally connects you in a completely different way to your food, and the people who have grown it. There are people behind this food, not factories; there are stories behind these people, not just packaging. On the other side, there are the stories and connections that are made around the table, enjoying this local bounty. The simple act of preparing this food, and sharing it with family and friends, nourishes far more than one’s health, it also nourishes one’s spirit and ultimately is the reason that all these farmers and artisans have worked so hard.
Of course there are health benefits – everything is far more nutrient dense. (As I’ve heard so many times, “Pay the Farmer, Not the Doctor.”) Of course there are environmental benefits – we are supporting stewards of the land who try to give back more than they take. Of course there are economic benefits – these Food Dollars support your community. But in this case, it is the “whole” that is even more compelling than its parts!
TCM: So often, we hear success stories of how kids who know where their food comes from are more adventurous eaters—do you have any stories about how your organization and children’s eating habits?
“I’ve had some customers who have struggled to get their kids on board, and I have other customers who tell me their kids get almost as excited about the Boxes arriving as Santa Claus! The younger they start, the better. Of course, once they hit school and come into contact with kids who might not have been exposed to this type of food, you might start to hear more requests for “normal food”. Let’s make this the norm.
My friend and neighbor Kim Gerber, who works tirelessly in the arena of kids and healthy food, has looked at our produce selections – that some families find challenging – and told me the selections are fine, but sometimes we have to dress things up for the kids. I urge people to use their imagination. Give your children food challenges (clean plate club?), get them involved in the cooking (shelling beans, chopping and peeling), use your imagination when you put the food on their plates (make shapes, or pictures with the food, etc). For more ideas, you can check out Kim’s great blog, which ironically, is called Out of the Box Food!”
TCM: So many people are tapping in to the importance of growing their own food and knowing where their food comes from – all of a sudden friends of mine who never had a green thumb are growing edible gardens! Do you think this is a long time coming? How do you think our attitudes towards farming and local food has changed?
“It’s interesting that the economic downturn has coincided with this elevated consciousness people have about global warming, as it is motivating people to think long and hard about their buying habits, and what is sustainable. Films like Food, Inc. and voices like Michael Pollan’s have helped SO MUCH to educate people about the dangers of industrial farming (for our health, and for the environment). And simple pleasures like weeding, tending a plant or building a chicken coop or a bee hive have suddenly taken on a whole new meaning, when going out to buy the latest pair of Manolo’s just doesn’t cut it anymore. We’re just getting ‘Back to the Garden’, like Joni Mitchell suggested – where we all came from. I hope all the rest has been a temporary diversion and the tide has now turned, but I’m sure the road will be rocky as there is Big Food with Big Dollars to fight with every step of the way!”
TCM: You go beyond just veggies and deliver meat, eggs, dairy, olive oil, honey. Can you tell us a little bit about the artisans you feature? Are they all local and how do you all work together?
“Like the definition of CSA, the definition of Local has also been much discussed. I think you have to be practical, not dogmatic about this. Whatever I can source locally (let’s say, within 150 miles from LA) I try to source locally, but some things, like grains and cheeses, are more abundant in Sonoma, for example, so I think it’s natural to go further afield and buy from areas where things naturally grow well. In the same way we buy fairly traded rice, sugar, bananas etc. and support stewards of the land from further afield for those items.
Most of the artisans we feature are working on a very small scale, and our orders make a substantial difference to their livelihoods. Sometimes these artisans will make special orders for us – like the Farmer and the Cook made us hand-made organic tortillas (I wanted to be sure to avoid GMO corn as an ingredient) for our Mexican Box – and for that same box, Ayda Robana created a special cilantro/lime salad dressing. It’s a creative process for all of us, and because our orders are for the entire group, we have the buying power to justify these projects. The artisans love the idea behind what we’re doing, and many of them also contribute mealplans and recipes for our weekly boxes. In turn, our customers love the adventure they get when they sign up for our boxes. Every week is a new surprise.”
TCM: You mentioned building a new local distribution infrastructure. Will you speak to that a little bit and explain?
“Most retailers have wholesalers and distributors that they can order from, and everything gets delivered to their facility. Not us. While there is one wholesaler we work with for produce (they buy from all the same farms we buy from, so it saves us a lot of legwork), we still have to meet them at the market in Santa Barbara, where we are also picking up from a dozen other suppliers, after having done the rounds to an artisan kitchen, the rancher’s storage facility, the coop for grocery items, the fish monger for the catch of the Week, a farm in Goleta and more.
When our volume increases, this corridor between LA and the Ventura/Santa Barbara area will be strengthened. Our suppliers will, I hope, be able to deliver everything to one place, and then it will be trucked down to LA by the produce distributor (that’s the plan, anyway – though I wish it could come down on the train! Maybe one day). Building local infrastructure is a process. But without it, without chipping away at it slowly as we are doing, it’s not going to happen. I see different regions developing local food hubs for local distribution. This is the model we’re going for. In essence we are a mini local food hub, and are hopefully a prototype, laying the ground work to create more mini local food hubs, and then larger ones, in other communities across the country.”
TCM: Can you tell us a little about what a fall CSA box would look like and maybe include a recipe that would help people understand that even if you get an ingredient you aren’t used to buying at the market it’s easy to incorporate and stretch your food repertoire?
“I can’t speak to what’s in all fall CSA boxes, but I can describe how we organize our produce selections year round, depending on what’s available seasonally. We include 3-5 root veggies like potatoes, onions, garlic and carrots or beets or radishes or parsnips. There are about 4-6 veggies like tomatoes, beans, peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, squash (winter or summer), etc. Usually 1-2 leafy greens – lettuce or spring mix, and a selection like kale or chard or spinach or arugula. We usually include 2 different herbs which go with our meal plan, and lastly, a fruit selection, which also really changes with the seasons. In the colder months, we have lots of citrus and apples, but also berries and persimmons and pomegranate. In the summer, of course, there’s stone fruit in the mix – but here in LA, we are blessed to have stone fruit late in the season. Every November I get really excited to include the Autumn Lady peaches from Tenerelli Farms in the high desert.
Most boxes get at least 1 or 2 heirloom or more unusual items, like Gravenstein apples, tomatillos, shallots or Cipollini onions. These are the items that really elevate the boxes and keep them interesting. These are also the special ingredients you see at all the top restaurants in town, and sourced from the same farmers. In essence, with the ingredients from our boxes, you are working with the same ingredients that Suzanne Goin is using in her restaurants. Half the battle to putting delicious food on the table, is in the ingredients…
As for a recipe, here is a recipe appearing in next week’s box, our Fashion Week box, which includes tomatillos, a really cool veggie that many people have never cooked with. It’s for a tomatillo sauce to serve with steak. The recipe is written by Sara Woodward, who has graced the kitchens of Suzanne Goin, Marco Pierre White and now Le Bernardin in New York. Sara contributes many meal plans to OOTB.
- Tomatillos, husks removed
- 1 dried red chili pepper (opt)
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- salt and pepper, to taste
1. Place the first 6 ingredients into a food processor and puree until smooth. Place in a pot and cook on stove at low-medium heat until the sauce has reduced by a third. Season with salt and pepper.
2. For the top sirloin: Season liberally with sea salt and cracked black pepper. Grill to a nice medium-rare or sear in a pan either wholly or cut into smaller “stir-fry-sized” pieces. Serve with the tomatillo sauce.”
TCM: Are CSAs for everyone? Who is the ideal customer?
“CSAs in their traditional form are not for everyone, and that is why there have been many other options to come out of the Good Food movement. We are responding to people’s lifestyles and trying to offer alternatives to people who want to eat local, but can’t necessarily commit to a CSA or going to the farmers’ market. It’s all about finding a good fit for your lifestyle. But everyone can find ways of doing this, and I urge them to make a point of it. Try a CSA or a home delivery service, shop at your local farmer’s market, shop the “Local” aisle at your supermarket, grow your own veggies or team up with some neighbors and create a communal garden. Put up a chicken coop in your garden, or a bee hive. All of it is good.”
TCM: What is the future of CSAs? Is the goal to have one in every household?
“The goal is for our country to feed itself in a sustainable, healthy manner, for all neighborhoods to have access to these local, sustainably grown foods and for us to get over the fear associated with cooking – which has led to our over-dependence on junk food and supermarket foods that are processed and empty. One of my customers, who happens to be an Oscar-winning actress who miraculously still finds the time to cook for her husband and three kids, summed it up beautifully to me in an e-mail, talking about “the learned helplessness in the American kitchen”! Change won’t happen overnight, but even baby steps will help us learn to empower ourselves in the kitchen again.
Change needs to come through all of our efforts, but also through a new farm bill which supports sustainable farming (considered to be “specialty crops”) and through the amazing Proposition 37 – the California Right to Know Campaign – which would require labeling of genetically engineered foods in California, giving consumers more information about the food we’re serving our families. It will also come through grassroots efforts to simply change our habits. There are lots of choices out there to facilitate this! Even home cooking one meal a week, with local ingredients, is a huge step forward. Let’s all make change together.”