Mary Wessel Walker grew up eating local produce from the Community Farm of Ann Arbor. As part of a Community Supported Agriculture program, her family received fresh produce every week from the farm in exchange for a membership fee. Now back in Ann Arbor after studying philosophy at Bryn Mawr College, Wessel Walker is taking the CSA concept one step further.
Harvest Kitchen is kicking off its fourth summer as a CSA program that offering weekly supply of prepared meals made from local ingredients. Wessel Walker said she came up with the idea one day while working at the Community Farm and thinking about how to make local dining more widespread and accessible to the general public.
“I thought … if there was a farm that could somehow help you with the cooking, maybe that would help people because some families find it really overwhelming to deal with all these fresh vegetables,” she said.
CSA programs have been growing in popularity across the United States over the past two decades. Brought over from Germany and Switzerland, the concept involves people paying local farmers for shares of the harvest. A typical share consists of a weekly supply of fresh produce, but there are also meat and dairy CSA programs, according to a CSA affiliated website.
Wessel Walker praised the CSA system for offering people quality food at their convenience.
“(Produce from CSA) is healthy, it comes from local sources, it’s grown and made by people who cared and put a lot of love and excitement into their work, and it’s super convenient,” she said. “It’s really easy, you don’t have to scrub the dirt off the carrots because we do that for you.”
Members of Harvest Kitchen automatically become members of the Community Farm and receive a CSA-style supply of fresh fruits and vegetables in addition to weekly meals from Wessel Walker and her eight-person staff.
Last winter, Wessel Walker partnered up with Rena Basch of Locavorious, a frozen food CSA that now provides Harvest Kitchen with fresh produce year-round, and Kris Hirth of the Old Pine Farm meat CSA. The new omnivore option made possible through Old Pine Farm was very successful in its first season, according to Wessel Walker.
Wessel Walker said she gets most of her recipe ideas from her large collection of cookbooks and over the years has developed a sense for what types of recipes will be successful.
“This is (Harvest Kitchen’s) fourth summer, (and) I feel like I’ve gotten more and more of a sense what’s going to be good and what’s not going to be good and what people are going to like,” she said.
The amount of food Harvest Kitchen provides its members varies over the course of the season, Wessel Walker said. Meals become progressively larger over the course of the summer, starting in June. She added that it is difficult to estimate the longevity of a share, which depends on how members ration food.
CSA food is most plentiful in August and September, Wessel Walker said.
During a normal week last September, members received two quarts of vegetable chili, one cup of basil pesto, one quart of eggplant dumplings, two quarts of coleslaw with apples, one quart of greens in peanut sauce, one gallon of salad and their choice of either a watermelon or a cantaloupe.
Last week, members who signed up early for the June-November summer season received a special preview of this year’s provisions — a seven-inch quiche, one quart of spinach salad with dressing and one cup of sour cream and onion dip.
“It’s only a good deal if you eat everything,” she said. “If you are paying this money up front and then letting the vegetables rot in your refrigerator, it’s a waste of money.”
In 2007, Harvest Kitchen sold seven shares. This summer, there are 35 shares available with 12 still up for grabs.
The price of a whole six month share, including the price of the farm share, is 2,400 dollars for the vegetarian option and 2,700 dollars for the omnivore option. Members can also opt for a half share, which Wessel Walker said she recommends for individual customers or couples.
Last Friday, Mark Schrupp stopped by the Harvest Kitchen location on Geddes Avenue near Oxford Housing to pick up his share. He said he and his family had already been members of the Community Farm, but they decided to try Harvest Kitchen a couple of years ago because it offered a convenient way to enjoy local ingredients.
Wessel Walker admitted that Harvest Kitchen isn’t for everyone, but after Shrupp left the kitchen with his food, she said “that’s one family that it really works for.”
A membership to Harvest Kitchen might be too expensive for a student or someone with a tight budget, but according to Wessel Walker, if the other option is either eating out or at a hot food bar like the one at the People’s Food Co-op in Kerrytown, Harvest Kitchen is “at least comparable, if not less expensive in the end.”
Wessel Walker said one graduate student at the University, who debated joining Harvest Kitchen for a long time, recently decided to go for it because she was working so much that she simply didn’t have the energy to cook for herself.
“I did have the impression that it was going to be a budget stretch for her, but hopefully (it was) worth it,” she said.
Looking towards the future of Harvest Kitchen, Wessel Walker said that she’s not interested in providing food to institutions like the University dining halls or the University hospital, but she hopes to reach more individuals and families.
Wessel Walker added that she is considering creating a retail line similar to the hot food bar at the People’s Food Co-op to allow people to enjoy meals made with local food without having to take the “leap of faith” that comes with a six-month membership.