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What Is Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) – Comparison to Store-Bought Produce

By Brian Martucci

csaMy longtime girlfriend and I recently took a brief break from our busy lives to tie the knot. The whole experience was unforgettable, but one of the highlights was the amazing outpouring of generosity from our friends and family members, many of whom we hadn’t always been good about keeping in touch with. We got all sorts of presents, some of which are still sitting in storage as we get moved into our new place.

One of the more novel gifts, courtesy of the tremendous generosity of my wife’s cousin, is a share in a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Never mind that I had no idea what a CSA was – my wife had to patiently explain it to me. Just a few weeks into our membership, I’m hooked, and not just because I’m eating more fresh vegetables than at any time in my life. Turns out, this thing is saving us a decent amount of money.

What Is a CSA?

A CSA program offers independent, generally small farmers (ours is from a five-acre plot) an alternative way to sell their products. It may be managed by the owner of a single farm, or by a group of farms functioning as a cooperative. As the name suggests, CSAs provide food for specific communities. There aren’t absolute rules governing how far a CSA can distribute from the farm (or farms), but most stick within a couple hours’ drive. For instance, our CSA’s plot is about 60 miles from our home.

Though it’s not a requirement, most CSAs practice sustainable, environmentally responsible agriculture, planting cover crops (instead of using commercial fertilizer) to protect soil ecology and using fewer pesticides than large-scale farmers. Many are certified organic as well. And since CSAs don’t distribute over long distances, they have a smaller carbon footprint than farms that distribute nationally.

An individual CSA typically has a fixed number of members, also known as shareholders. In most cases, members buy their shares at the beginning of each season – membership doesn’t carry over from year to year. During the growing season, each shareholder receives weekly deliveries of fresh produce and agricultural products from the participating farms.

Share Sizes and Cost

The size of the delivery depends on the size of the share. Shares typically come in three sizes: full (three-quarters bushel), medium (half bushel), and small (one-quarter bushel). This gives shareholders some control over how much food they get. For instance, my CSA recommends a full share for a regular family of four, or “two to three voracious vegetable eaters” in the same household.

CSA shares are priced such that shareholders cover the cost of food production for the entire season. The farmers who run the program set a price for each share size, as well as a target for the total number of shares sold (based on how much they can grow). Prices may not always be proportional to the share size, as some farmers give bulk discounts for larger shares. And prices can vary for similar amounts of food since many CSAs try to turn a profit and set their prices accordingly. Others see themselves as providing a community service and merely aim to break even.

What’s in a Share?

The content of these deliveries may vary with the season, your location, and weather conditions. In my neck of the woods (east-central Minnesota and western Wisconsin), we usually see things like carrots, kale, and mustard/collard greens in the late spring, leafy vegetables, berries, and tomatoes in the summer, and squash, apples, and pears in the fall.

Some CSAs are strictly vegetarian, but many – such as Farmers Fresh CSA in the Atlanta, Georgia, area – do offer meat and dairy products throughout the year. This is less common in my area (my cousin couldn’t even find a non-vegetarian CSA that would deliver in our city). And some CSAs that offer both animal products and fruits and vegetables keep the two separate (with a produce-only option), so you may have to pay more for both. Basically, if you want access to farm-fresh meat, eggs, and cheese, you may want to peruse multiple CSAs in your area.

Deliveries and Sales

For logistical simplicity, many CSAs drop off their weekly deliveries at central locations, typically community centers or nurseries that set aside some space for them. For instance, we pick up our share at a nursery a couple miles from our house. Our CSA has several other drop-off points within easy driving distance of us.

As a shareholder, you can specify which location you want to use. And it’s possible that your chosen CSA will create a new delivery location in response to shareholder demand. On the other hand, some CSAs offer door-to-door delivery, particularly in sparsely populated areas. If you live far from a central drop-off location, look for a CSA that will deliver to your home or business.

To ensure that they have enough cash on hand to continue through the growing season, CSAs typically offer their shares for sale before the first delivery of the year. If shares sell out before the first delivery, the CSA closes to new members until the following year. If shares remain after the season begins, the CSA may continue to offer them at prorated pricing. In areas with longer growing seasons, CSAs may offer partial-season shares. For instance, the Atlanta area’s Farmers’ Fresh lets its customers pay for four weeks at a time.

Buying a CSA share is a great way to partake in your home region’s agricultural bounty while supporting small farmers who care about environmental stewardship. But is it a sound financial investment for you?

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Comparing the Cost of CSA Produce and Store-Bought Produce

Because it was a gift, my wife and I are not paying for our CSA this year. But we like it enough that we’re certainly going to sign up next year. With that in mind, I took a look at the potential savings (or cost) of our membership. You can undertake a similar analysis that applies to your situation, based on the CSA options and cost of supermarket food in your area.

We currently have a medium share, about enough for five veggie-centric meals for two people. Some examples of CSA-inspired meals we’ve enjoyed recently:

  • Sumi salad, which includes a CSA-supplied head of shredded cabbage and a CSA-supplied shredded carrot, plus non-CSA ingredients such as ramen noodles, almonds, apple cider vinegar, and chicken
  • Squash frittata, a quiche-like dish that includes CSA-supplied squash, cucumbers, and onions, plus non-CSA eggs and spices
  • Dinner salad, which includes CSA-supplied leafy veggies (butter lettuce, arugula) and onions, plus non-CSA blue cheese and walnuts

Our medium share costs $395. With 18 deliveries included, that’s about $21.95 per week. Though the delivery isn’t identical each week, the volume is always the same.

These are actual items and quantities from a recent week’s delivery:

  • One head of green cabbage
  • Two huge zucchinis (each probably double the size of a store-bought zucchini)
  • One regular-sized cucumber
  • Two regular-sized yellow squash
  • Two red onions
  • Three onion bulbs with green onion shoots
  • One head of butter lettuce
  • One bag of arugula, roughly eight ounces
  • One bag of green beans, roughly one pound

Let’s take a look at the same selection at my local supermarket. Since our CSA is all-organic, these prices are for organic items:

  • One head of green cabbage: $2.89
  • Two zucchinis: $1.29 each, $2.58 total
  • One cucumber: $1.59
  • Two yellow squash: $1.29 each, $2.58 total
  • Two red onions: $1.29 each, $2.58 total
  • Three onion bulbs: $1.99 each, $5.97 total
  • One head of butter lettuce: $1.79
  • One bag arugula: $3.99
  • One pound green beans: $1.99

That’s $26.14 altogether, or $4.19 more than the weekly cost of our CSA. Played out over the course of a season, our savings would add up to $75.42. Pretty solid.

Other Benefits and Considerations

Considering the economy of scale that my local supermarket enjoys, it’s amazing that the CSA is competitive at all – let alone less expensive. It’s also important to note that the produce from our CSA is picked within a day or two of our weekly pickup.

Our supermarket doesn’t disclose the field-to-shelf time for each variety of produce, but it’s probably longer than that, as many items come from halfway across the country. This also means that our CSA produce has a smaller carbon footprint than the stuff we’d buy at the store, reducing (ever so slightly) the global cost of fossil fuel consumption, fertilizer use, and associated environmental damage. Moreover, our CSA’s produce is a lot fresher – and thus tastier – than the store-bought alternative.

To be fair, I expect our CSA’s relative cost to vary throughout the year. In our (cold) neck of the woods, root vegetables and corn tend to be cheaper than leafy vegetables and tomatoes, so our October deliveries may offer less value than our August deliveries. But the thought of a box filled with just-picked butternut and acorn squash, sweet corn, and parsnips eases the potential pain. So does the idea of supporting a local farmer who tries to do right by the soil.

One other caveat: CSA pricing varies widely. At Farmers Fresh, a medium share is about $19 per week, spread across 30 deliveries. But it charges a $100 annual membership fee, basically eliminating the lower weekly cost. On the other hand, it offers access to a wider range of fresh produce, thanks to Georgia’s more favorable climate, plus meat and dairy products. And it leverages a network of 50-something producers, creating additional opportunities for variety and quality. Share prices for another CSA, in central California, range from $21.80 per week to $37.50 per week.

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Additional Savings: Changing Eating Habits

Buying shares in a CSA may have other financial benefits – since our CSA began, we’ve definitely changed our eating habits for the better. These changes have led to quantifiable savings:

1. Eating Fewer Meals Out
Partly because we love preparing meals with fresh vegetables, and partly because we don’t want to waste anything in our weekly delivery, we’ve been cooking more meals at home lately. On average, we’ve eliminated one restaurant meal per week from our budget, replacing it with a home-cooked meal. This saves us roughly $20 per week, for a total savings of $360 per season.

2. Eating Less Meat
I enjoy eating meat, but a meat-heavy diet is definitely more expensive – and less healthy – than a strictly vegetarian one. While we haven’t eliminated animal protein altogether, a meal like the aforementioned dinner salad – with its cheese and walnuts – doesn’t require meat to feel complete. Not including a $5 chicken breast or $8 pound of flank steak in just one weekly meal produces real, if modest, savings – $90 or $144 per season, to be exact.

3. Fewer Processed Foods
We’ve also cut down on the amount of processed snacks and prepared or prepackaged meals that we eat. For instance, we often put out sliced carrots or celery with a homemade dip to snack on between meals. And instead of potato or tortilla chips, we’ve used CSA-supplied kale to make (much healthier) kale chips, or just incorporate it into a mixed-greens salad. Not only are these snack ideas tastier, they’re significantly more appealing when we consider that they just came out of the soil in a neighboring county.

4. Long-term Health Benefits
While eating a hearty serving of CSA-supplied salad may have a higher short-term cost than eating part of a bag of generic, store-bought chips, it’s clearly healthier. Though they’re impossible to quantify now, better health can have big financial benefits – including lower insurance premiums and lower direct medical bills – over the long term.

5. Cheap Meal Ideas
Our CSA, which is a husband-wife farming team, publishes a weekly online newsletter (and occasional blog) that outlines the coming delivery in painstaking detail. It also offers useful tips for preparing each item, including how to incorporate them into meals. Other CSAs may go even further, offering complete recipes. If you’re not sure how to use your weekly bounty – or just aren’t that creative in the kitchen – this can reduce waste and maximize your enjoyment.

6. New Experiences and Understanding
We’ve always been adventurous eaters, but our CSA has made it easier for us to be adventurous in the comfort of our own home. Since the beginning of the season, I’ve tried several veggies for the first time, including a couple varieties of heirloom tomatoes, a shallot (to be fair, I don’t know how I missed that one), a delicate, spicy leaf vegetable that I still don’t know the name of, and French filet beans.

And thanks to our CSA’s blog – not to mention the dirt and grit on our lettuce and carrots – my wife and I have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for what farmers do. They’re a young, thoughtful couple, and it’s refreshing to see that they’ve made a conscious decision to make their own way in the world, even if it requires backbreaking labor and lots of worry about things beyond their control.

7. Instilling Healthy, Sustainable Eating Habits in Kids
A CSA is a great way to teach kids about healthy eating. If we’ve already had several new experiences this year, imagine how many a young child would have with a typical season’s bounty. To get your kids excited about fresh, healthy food, let them open each week’s delivery and try to identify all the items inside. Take advantage of their natural curiosity and have them taste the ones they don’t remember or haven’t seen before. Even if they don’t like the taste, it’ll surely stick in their memory. (And maybe your kids will come around if you can find some creative ways to incorporate tougher fruits and veggies into meals and snacks.) The earlier you start, the more likely your kids will be to take fresh produce for granted – and the more likely they’ll be to seek it out in the future.

Final Word

At the end of the day, community-supported agriculture is about more than saving money at the grocery store. It’s about getting a little closer to the folks who produce our food and supporting those who choose to earn a living in a non-conventional way.

While there’s plenty of legitimate political debate to be had about how we source our food, you don’t have to ascribe to a particular ideology to appreciate independent farmers’ hard work and dedication. If you want to reward them for their toil, maybe there’s a local CSA that could use your patronage.

Where do you get your fresh produce?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci is a freelance journalist and branding consultant who loves to provide practical personal finance advice for regular people. When he’s not writing about frugal living, long-term investing, or consumer-friendly financial products, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine.

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  • http://www.milliondollarninja.com Aldo @ MDN

    We’re pretty happy with our CSA. It has help us try new vegetables and it also forces us to eat more vegetables. Also, like you said, it keeps us from going out to eat because we have to eat our share before next week or risk having too many vegetables.

    • Brian Martucci

      Glad you’ve had a positive experience! Do you think you’ve saved money overall?

      • http://www.milliondollarninja.com Aldo @ MDN

        Is hard to tell. If we divide the CSA total cost by the amount of weeks we receive vegetables and add it to our grocery budget, it comes out about the same as before we started the CSA. But we are eating a lot more organic food now, which we weren’t before, and it’s saving us time by not having to wander around the produce section trying to figure out what to eat.

        • Brian Martucci

          Yeah, the convenience aspect is big for us too, aside from the health benefits. As for cost, my hope is that CSAs (and organic food in general) will become even more competitive with non-organic options as more farmers adopt organic practices and consumers get turned on to the benefits.

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