Late last Fall, my wife pointed out an ad in the local paper about a subscription service for a veggie box to be delivered down the street each Wednesday. All the veggies would be fresh, organic and grown locally (one farm about 65 miles away by car). We decided to subscribe for the twenty-week period at a cost of a little less than $30.00 per week. The educational value for a processed-food advocate was worth the price alone with the box of fresh vegetables to eat an added benefit. As I write this article, I have two more weeks left of fresh, organic vegetables. We were unable to pick up our boxes for two weeks, but we were pleased that any unclaimed box would be donated for local distribution.
Although I realized that this move would affect my eating and food preparation patterns, I failed to realize how much it would change my life for twenty weeks. Some changes were positive; others, negative; and many, unexpected. First, and foremost, I had no idea how many vegetables I was about to receive. Even though we had just purchased a new refrigerator-freezer with greater capacity, the vegetables took over. When pulling out all the produce tightly packed into our relatively compact box, the veggies seemed to magically expand to fill the much larger space of the refrigerator compartment. The next thing I noticed is that I needed to plan meals around vegetables and not around meat or other protein-rich item. It soon became apparent that preparing meals with unlimited amounts of fresh vegetables tripled or quadrupled my food-prep time. The diversity of items sent me to my numerous cookbooks and the farm’s website to find out how to cook them. My wife was thoughtful enough to buy me The Roasted Vegetable1 by Andrea Chesman to help me out. Available refrigerator space did not seem to improve as leftovers began to occupy areas from where the fresh items had departed.
Vegetables from the box last week.
The next great revelation was that the amount of vegetables we received each week was more than a family of two who have busy lives and do not consume all of their meals at home could handle. Other changes in lifestyle included bypassing the produce section when buying groceries and ignoring the frozen vegetables in the freezer. Unexpected consequences included eating less fresh fruit and unusual, for us, cravings for anything not resembling a vegetable. Some weeks we found way too many eggplants in a box and other times way too many summer squashes and/or zucchini. Then we would find to our pleasant surprise a truly unique item such as Romanesco. I like greens, but in moderation. Green moderation never happened over the twenty weeks. I tried a green smoothie but found it disgusting. Green soup was the salvation. The best veggies of all to my taste were the root vegetables—red and yellow beets, radishes, turnips, and red potatoes—baked covered at 350 until tender without turning brown. The grape tomatoes were OK, but not as good as I could find in the grocery store. The Roma tomatoes were a big disappointment, unsatisfactory for salads but acceptable ingredients for sauce or soup.
I confess that I have been overwhelmed at times during this project. Many weeks I needed to throw away food from one week to make room for incoming food the next week. I hate to waste food, but I did not have an outlet to share until the third and fourth month of my adventure. I was saved by my part-time, next-door neighbor who helped share the bounty for two of the five months. We were able to amicably divide up the goods, and some of it came back to my house in more delicious form than I would ever be able to master. I also learned that vegetable soup can be a suitable breakfast food replacing eggs, cereal or bagels from time to time in the mornings.
During March we had the opportunity to visit the farm and eat a delicious but expensive, gourmet meal prepared almost entirely from vegetables grown on the farm including a delicious dessert from yellow beets. The one exception was a taste of corned beef as part of an appetizer in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Over lunch I had the opportunity to talk to one of the farm owners who described the pressures he faces in meeting guidelines for organic foods and the Food Safety Modernization Act. We were able to take a tour of the farm and were impressed at the measures the growers take to ensure the high quality of organic produce that is delivered to us each week. We learned that the vegetables delivered on Wednesday are usually picked on Monday or Tuesday before sorting and packing, so they are not quite as fresh as I had originally thought. We also learned, as we had suspected, that excess of less popular items end up in the box explaining some weeks of too much squash or eggplant.
I am pleased that I took the opportunity to become a member of the farm entitling me to a box of fresh, organic veggies each week. It was an education as it pushed me out of my comfort zone and exposed me to some exotic items and new dishes. Visiting the farm was also beneficial. I will continue to eat both home-prepared foods from fresh vegetables and my standard fare of processed food. I plan to seek out a wider variety of vegetables in the market in the future and hope to incorporate more fruit in my diet. Do I plan to subscribe to a box again next year? Probably not, because I just can’t use all the veggies each week that come in the box. If I could find a companion who would be willing to share a box with me, I would be happy to try again.
The best thing about the program was the availability of fresh vegetables each week. That they were organic did not mean anything to me. If 65 miles away is local, then local is nice, but being fresh and able to hold up in my refrigerator for at least a week after I brought them home was much more important. Nothing against the farm that supplied our vegetables, but the whole organic movement grates on me. The idea that organic farming or gardening is chemical free is highly misleading. All farm crops are chemically dependent. They need water (a chemical) and minerals such as nitrogen and potassium (elements applied in the form of chemical compounds that will release it in a form that the plants can use) to grow. They also must be grown in oxygen (another element) and sunlight (needed to jump-start the complex chemical process known as photosynthesis to take carbon dioxide out of the air to form the vegetative tissue we consume). Organic pesticides are “natural” chemicals, nonetheless, and can be as toxic to humans and the environment as artificial ones. Isn’t it time that we be open and honest about chemicals in out foods?
Next week: How Big Food hides undesirable chemicals in its clean labels
1 Chesman, A., 2002. TheRoasted Vegetable, Boston MA: Harvard Common Press