I have spent the past couple months thinking more deeply about what makes a successful CSA, what retains members from year-to-year, and how to drive member satisfaction in a CSA. I have been reading academic papers on CSAs, attended the Midwest CSA Conference last week, and I have been talking to a lot of CSA farmers. I have also been examining how I participate in CSAs and I often bring CSA up in social conversation and I am fascinated by what people say about their experience or perception of what a CSA does.
At the member level, it is clear to me that success in a CSA program is determined by skill in utilizing the weekly box. We want CSA members who are confident in the kitchen; we want CSA members who are canning and lacto-fermenting; we want CSA members excited to cook for family and friends and tell the story of where their food comes from. However on a macro scale, what we have is a nation that has forgotten how to cook. So when an eater comes to a CSA for the first time, it is difficult to make the adjustments that a CSA asks of it's members. These do not need to be exotic skills, but there is a trick to turning a box of fresh food into meals.
You know that already: that's why your weekly newsletter already provides recipes and notes about how to use the box you provide. I keep coming back to this idea that the classic recipe does a disservice to the CSA member because it is a set of discrete steps that need to be followed with these specific ingredients. The subtext of almost any recipe is: if you don't do it in this exact way with these exact ingredients, you will fail. I think that approach sells cookbooks, but it doesn't fit with the seasonal CSA eating model.
I want CSA members who see a recipe for broccoli slaw and immediately realize that they can substitute cauliflower from their CSA box into the existing recipe. Or realize that it's probably okay to use green onions in a recipe that calls for a white storage onion. What has helped me other the years is learning certain base recipes that can be extended with whatever is in the box or in the garden. For example, this summer I started making broccoli fritters which are absolutely delicious. They are equally delicious as zucchini-turnip fritters or mushroom fitters.
I want to teach CSA members techniques for their boxes and get away from classic recipes. I want to teach "substitution style cooking" that teaches kitchen proficiency and economy: use what's in the box to confidently create simple, delicious meals.
I think this is a paradigm shift from how we normally about educate members about how to cook the box and it is not as easy as copying-and-pasting recipes from AllRecipes.com. This kind of education initiative is a long way from the details of growing great food, but I am convinced that it is important to the success of the overall CSA movement. I am very interested to hear if anyone has tried this approach to CSA member education and succeeded and failed? Email me: simon (at) smallfarmentral.com.