The CSA model isn't just for produce anymore

All kinds of artisanal edibles are now distributed via the subscription model.
Illustration: Ed Siemienkowicz
By Martina Sheehan |

It seems everybody wants to cozy up to their local farmer these days, and CSAs, or community-supported agriculture programs, are a great way to do that, with weekly produce boxes delivered directly from farms to consumers via neighborhood drop-off points. While the concept of buying membership shares to help small farms cover production costs first sprouted on this side of the Atlantic in the mid-’80s, the model is more popular than ever, with more than 50 CSAs delivering to the Chicago area. But lately, the distribution model’s been taking over other artisanal edibles, too.

“Uncle Paulie” Soule of Paulie’s Pasture (630-877-7372, will make the 90-mile drive from Lee County, Illinois, to almost anywhere in Chicago and suburbs, just to be sure there’s a free-range chicken in every pot. The birds, which are not organic but humanely raised with local feed, are available via a $200 subscription, at $3.70 per pound. While Soule says he has yet to turn a profit on the service, he’s happy to oblige: “This works best when friends and neighbors, like-minded people, pool together.” Custom dressing, from feet to giblets, as well as eggs ($3 per dozen, $4 per dozen after July 4) are also available.

Fresh ingredients are great, but how about signing up to get an entire family-size organic meal each week? Chef Mary Ellen Diaz’s First Slice organization (multiple locations, 773-506-7380) offers nine- or ten-week shares of frozen-fresh dinners such as shredded duck or braised beef, complete with sides and dessert. “I have two kids and I have a hard time getting food on the table every night, and I’m a chef, so you can imagine it’s really hard for regular families,” says Diaz, a former North Pond chef. And with these meals, there’s no shame in not cooking at home: Proceeds go to feeding homeless youth at the org’s soup kitchen.

A taste of community building comes with your smoked-yerba maté kombucha, too, when you order from Nathan Wyse, maker of Thrive and cofounder of the no-obligation, buy-as-you-go Edible Alchemy CSA. “It’s the most reliable and most affordable way to get kombucha,” he says, noting the CSA offers his 32-ounce bottles for about a dollar less than what stores charge ($8 versus $9). Alchemy offers produce shares, raw honey, organic grains and other staples as well, with four drop-off points around the city. “We’re essentially a community bulk-buying club,” says Andrea Mattson, Edible Alchemy’s codirector. “But really, the point is more to build a community around food.”