Healthy Food, Healthy Community

I’ve never met Ian Roberts, but he’s a North Coast fisherman and the other day he caught the ling cod filet that we had for dinner. The same goes for Lorraine Walker. Never met her either, but many times we have enjoyed the rainbow chard and other vegetables that were grown on her 100-acre farm in Dixon, east of Benicia.

Lorraine and Ian are two of the people who put the “community” in Community Supported Agriculture.

CSAs, as they are more popularly known, basically are a means to connect Bay Area farms and farmers directly with consumers who wish to buy the products of their hard work. Lorraine Walker’s Eatwell Farms sells through a CSA, as does Real Good Fish, a Moss Landing firm that distributes the cod, trout, halibut and salmon freshly caught by Ian Roberts and other fishermen.

My wife and I subscribe to the CSAs for Eatwell and Real Good Fish, as well as Tara Firma Farms, a 250-acre Petaluma farm that provides us with pasture-raised beef, chicken and pork, and practices “regenerative” agriculture. Sometimes George, its delivery driver, is dropping off Tara Firma’s bags of goodies in Benicia at the same time I’m arriving to pick our order up. We always chat a little, and I count George, who does not mind battling the crazed Bay Area traffic as part of his job, as one of the CSA people I never would have met if we hadn’t joined up.

Tara Firma and other CSAs offer home delivery, for an extra fee, but most people tend to choose the DIY option, picking up their stuff in the mid- to late-afternoon at a location in town. This secret location — aha, the “hidden” in Hidden Benicia! — is revealed to subscribers after they sign up.

We became interested in CSAs during the pandemic when the seafood that was available in area markets seemed less than ideal.

Real Good Fish promised “wild-caught” fresh fish that varied according to what was in season and “coming across the docks.” One of the most charming things about it is that on every package it tells what gear was used to make the catch, the waters where the fish was landed, and the name and boat of the fisherman. This was how we learned about Ian Roberts, out of Eureka harbor, on the vessel “Good News.”

All the CSAs have subscription plans based on how much food you wish to order, and how often. Weekly, biweekly, monthly. A minimum order of $25 to $50 is required, depending on the service. One of the knocks against CSAs is that they’re more expensive than a grocery store, and this is generally true. But they do offer discounts and sales like any other merchant, and we regularly find items that are the same price or cheaper than store-bought.

I have a friend in town who, wanting to eat good, healthy, locally-sourced food, signed up for a CSA.

But he’s not Julia Child, nor does he wish to be, and the overwhelming bounty of produce he received each week, often things he’d never seen before and didn’t even know the names of, eventually defeated him. This can be an issue, no doubt. Aware of this, CSAs offer recipes, tips and helpful encouragement so you’ll know what to do when your box comes loaded down with Daikon radishes, Mizuna greens or — oh no! — turnips. They also host dinners and special events and display their wares at farmers markets.

One point about CSAs is not open to debate, according to my taste buds. Their food tastes better. Fruits, vegetables, fish, meat — they’re fresher and more delicious than store-bought and, I would argue, healthier for you, too. Besides the ones mentioned here, several other excellent CSAs serve Benicia. Find a list of them on Sustainable Solano, a Solano County organization that promotes CSAs and other green initiatives.

By the way, none of this is intended as a knock against Raley’s or Safeway. They’re like little community centers where people see other people they haven’t seen in a while and they stop and chat next to the dairy case. We still spend money at both of them, know and like many of their employees, and wish them only the best. A healthy community needs good grocery stores, too.