…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
How to Avoid Falling Off the Responsible Eating Wagon in a Snowstorm
Categories: Company profiles, Copy

by Meg White

It’s snowing, but my stomach doesn’t know it. It’s not even March yet and all I can think of is fresh, locally-grown tomatoes. I’ve ordered my vegetable garden seeds, bought my peat pots and lugged home a stack of gardening books from the library. Last night, I had a pretty vivid dream about my compost bin.

Clearly, I need help. Or spring; whichever comes first.

Thankfully, I’m not alone. With the popularity of Michael Pollan’s works, Food Inc., and numerous other exposés on the terrible toll of factory farming, there is a growing movement to vote with one’s fork. But with locavores, proponents of organic certification and sustainable agriculture supporters all insisting it is their practice which is most critical in breaking the unhealthy cycle of factory farming, there is a great deal of confusion out there.

And the problem remains of what those of us who don’t live in California should do with the frozen tundra under our feet. This time of year, the indoor farmers markets (if you’re lucky enough to have access to any) contain slim, expensive pickins. The boxes offered by the few year-round CSAs (community-supported agriculture collectives) are well-stocked with winter squash and root vegetables, but little else. How do we northerners stay true to food virtues without getting scurvy?

Irv and Shelly to the rescue! Irv Cernauskas and Shelly Herman created Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks in 2006 in an effort to make sustainable foods more accessible to Chicago-area households.

“It does get complicated,” Herman told me in a recent telephone interview.

The couple used their MBAs and IT skills to create a business that coordinates the efforts of dozens of farms and CSAs across the country. They deliver their Fresh Picks Boxes — as well as custom orders of eggs, meat, dairy and other products — through an efficient routing process aimed at reducing emissions from people making runs to the grocery store. They also offer a bi-monthly newsletter with farmer interviews and recipes to help customers use up their Fresh Picks Boxes efficiently.

One main element that differentiates Fresh Picks from CSAs is the fact that it’s not membership-based. In a classic CSA, customers buy shares in the farmer’s crop. As shareholders, they own a piece of the produce pie, so to speak. Fresh Picks is more “like a green, sustainable Peapod,” as Herman said when I asked her about their similarity to the popular grocery store delivery service.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture does have some information on CSAs on its Web site, it doesn’t track the reach of alternative agriculture. LocalHarvest.com boasts the biggest online database of CSAs, listing 2,500 participating farms. But that list is growing quickly, at the rate of several hundred per year according to the site.

At first I thought it was strange that a CSA with delivery and pick-up points in Chicago would want to team up with Fresh Picks. Herman explained to me that there’s enormous power in collaboration.

“They might grow a lot of something and we can buy the extra,” Herman told me. She explained that Fresh Picks’ ability to soak up a bumper crop of onions, for example, can allow farms to be able to expand and diversify crops with fewer risks. “By working together… almost 100 percent of the time we can help out.”

In many ways, Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks is perfect for those just beginning to change the way they feed themselves. Katy Schoetzow, BuzzFlash’s customer service director and a new customer of Fresh Picks, described the system as “a mini, pre-CSA if you will.”

“They’re introducing people to CSAs without any of the inconveniences of CSAs,” Schoetzow said. As a former CSA shareholder, she knows that obscure pick-up sites and inconsistent produce availability sometimes frustrate customers. “[Fresh Picks] make it really easy to feel good about doing something.”

The company is focused on providing affordable, sustainable food to Chicago households. But they also partner with nonprofits such as Growing Home, which “provides job training for homeless and low-income individuals in Chicago through a social enterprise business based on organic agriculture.”

It seems people are coming up with new models to make feeding oneself sustainable all the time. Still, even with the many improvements in farmer’s markets and CSAs in northern Illinois, Herman bemoaned the fact that “less than one percent of the food consumed in the Chicago area is local.”

“We’re just not there yet,” Herman said. And while their goal is to make it “very affordable for people to eat local,” their program isn’t anything like your mother forcing you to eat rutabagas all winter.

Flexibility is definitely a hallmark at Fresh Picks. Unlike a traditional CSA, customers can order whenever they want and can easily customize their deliveries to include more exotic items. The fact that blueberries, avocados and bananas are even listed on their produce page in late February illustrates the wide net they cast in search of produce.

Herman said they don’t get criticized by locavores because Fresh Picks allows for individual choice. If you want to get a box full of local root vegetables all winter long, Fresh Picks can do that for you (just as they honor customers’ wishes regarding food allergies, or if a person just can’t stand the taste of beets, for example).

“We’re all about more local food,” Herman said, adding that throughout three-quarters of the year, their vegetable boxes are 100 percent local. “People need to choose the option that works best for them.”

Irv and Shelly’s flexibility extends to farmers as well. They strive for the best, most affordable local and organic food, but they’re nothing if not pragmatic. Their farmers’ practices may be sustainable but not fully organic. Others engage in strict organic practices, but do not have the capital to become USDA certified. Still others engage in integrated pest management, which is a wide spectrum of practices that may include spraying pesticides on plants before produce appears.

“We’ve put a lot of thought into the products we carry,” Herman said, adding that the effort is to “find the most sustainable” farms, starting with the local area and moving out geographically from there.

While she questioned the necessity of having a “middleman” between CSAs and consumers, Schoetzow orders from Irv and Shelly because it is much more accessible to her than a CSA.

“I didn’t have the money up-front [to invest in CSA shares]. It’s a little more economical for people who are living paycheck to paycheck,” Schoetzow said.

And while she expressed the notion that getting a kiwi fruit from a CSA in the dead of winter was a little frivolous, Schoetzow did tell me she appreciates the fact that Fresh Picks labels all of their produce according to origin. When I asked if she’d consider requesting only local produce, she laughed.

“I don’t want to eat celery root all winter long!” She did say she might, however, request that they stop sending her beets.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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