Fresh fruit for the masses: Basket program brings farmers' wares to Seattle

During the summer from age 2 to age 3, Nori Catalano, now age 4, forgot what peaches were.

She hadn't seen the fuzzy fruit for a year, and when it crossed her plate on a summer afternoon confusion set in.

"The feel and taste of a peach had slipped from her little memory," explained Michele Catalano, Nori's mother and program manager of the Pike Place Market Basket CSA - as in, Community Supported Agriculture.

"Friends thought it was sad that she couldn't remember what peaches were," Catalano recalled. "I thought it was great - we eat with the seasons."

The Pike Place Market Basket CSA, a cooperative organization made up of more than 30 local farmers who also sell at the Market, has connected the public with seasonal, organic and local food for nearly a decade. Members prepay for the season, thereby joining a community of consumers who support sustainable agriculture and local farmers. They also receive some of the freshest produce available in the state.

"The quality of the produce is excellent," said Christine Larsen, a graphic artist and Queen Anne resident who has participated in the Market CSA for six years. "I like the opportunity to support local farmers and engage in an activity that is more sustainable than buying organic produce shipped from Chile."

As the distance today's food products travel to the grocery store increases, supporting local farmers and engaging in sustainable practices is deemed by many to be a vitally important gesture of support.

"The CSA is something that we depend on and it makes our involvement with the Pike Place Market worthwhile," said Marilynn Lynn, a CSA farmer and co-owner with her husband Rick of their organic Rama Farm.

The Lynns travels 250 miles one way from their farm in Bridgeport, near Omak, to deliver soft-tree fruits such as peaches, apricots and nectarines to the Market. Belonging to the CSA helps make the long trip worthwhile, they say, because of the volume of fruit that they pre-sell to CSA members.

"We know that a generation ago, most farmers had on average a 20-mile commute to the Market," said Catalano. "Now our farmers are coming from farther away to sell in the city. It is very challenging because urban sprawl is eating up the farmland."

According to the United States Census of Agriculture, more than 20 percent of the farmland in the Puget Sound region, greater than 100,000 acres, was lost to other uses in the 15 years between 1982 and 1997. King and Snohomish counties alone lost 30 percent of their farmlands to other uses in this period.

One of Catalano's main goals with the CSA program is to help support small farms and make the farmer's trip to the city worthwhile. This is a noble cause when one considers the fact that it is our small farms that are truly in trouble.

Smaller farms have declined the most dramatically during the 15-year period between 1982 and 1997 - 1,500 farms of less than 50 acres were either converted to non-farm uses or consolidated into larger farms, according to the census.

"Our program has made it more possible for growers to come to Seattle," Catalano said. And more growers are selling in Seattle because of Catalano, a bright-eyed woman who inspires you to eat your fruits and vegetables.

When Catalano began running the program in 1999, there were 130 members. Today more than 750 residents of the Seattle area take home a basket during the summer months.

"I ran a brokerage business for 10 years," Catalano said with a smile. "Now I just broker food. I don't make as much money, but I eat well."

The CSA program runs for 20 weeks, from mid-June through October. CSA members pre-pay $570 ($545 if you pay with a check) and receive fresh-from-the-farm fruits, vegetables, nuts and honey. You can pay a little more and get weekly Market flowers as an added bonus.

"I can't think of anything that I don't like in the basket," said Queen Anne resident Priscilla Lauris, who has been a CSA member for seven years. "Apples and potatoes and lettuce - it just makes you want to have a salad every night," Lauris added. "It is just great. Garlic and onions, you will even get fresh honey now and then. It is just a joy."

"We are definitely getting our five servings of fruits and vegetables a day," Larsen laughed. During the summer, she commutes to work on a bike and picks up her CSA basket at the Pike Place Market on the way home. "Every other week you get an interesting vegetable like amaranth or some specialty greens," Larsen said. "It is always fun to find something new."

Catalano and her staff said they enjoy adding unique foods like cranberry beans, edamame, arugula and pea vines to the baskets. Members also receive a weekly newsletter that includes a list of the contributing farms as well as recipes for that week's produce.

"The seasonality of this kind of eating prompts anticipation," Catalano said.

Basket contents change from month to month - berries, melons and corn - and members eat produce that is literally "just picked."

"I think that the fresh, sweet corn is at the top of my list," Lauris said. "It is such a treat and you know it was just picked that morning."

It is no secret that fresh-from-the-vine-produce tastes better. However, eating foods when they are in season may offer hidden health benefits as well. According to Elson M. Haas, a physician and author of the book "Staying Healthy with the Seasons," there is a two-way communication between man and nature affecting both your inner harmony and physical well-being.

"Food both creates your body and serves as your fuel," Haas said. "Depending on your climate and activity, your optimum foods will vary in content and quantity."

The CSA offers the perfect opportunity to eat seasonally, and it keeps members in touch with what is farmed in Washington and when it is seasonally available. Another added benefit of the Market CSA is that it works with farmers on both sides of the mountains. Members receive fruits and melons from eastern Washington that won't grow west of the Cascades.

"I know that there are farmers participating in the Pike Place Market because of the CSA," Lynn said. "The program brings more farmers and customers together and makes that connection happen."

All farmers who participate in the CSA program are required to sell at the Market at least one day a week. CSA members can find more of the fresh produce that they love as well as meet the farmers who grow it.

"We get wonderful feedback from people who come and talk to us about our farm," Marilynn said. "They want to know who we are, where our farm is - they just want to know that there is a real human being behind that food."

As pesticide use increases and the world of GMO's (Genetically Modified Organisms) gets spookier and spookier, real human beings doing real human farming is real important - and, arguably, necessary.

"Farmers are the stewards of our lands," Catalano said. "This program is about preserving farmland, helping local farmers and becoming aware of what is available in your community."

Lucky for us, what is available in our community is sumptuous and leafy produce that feeds your spirit as well as your cells.

Applications for the Pike Place Market Basket CSA are due by May 1. For more information, visit Questions? Call 774-5239 or email[[In-content Ad]]