You want to hear something ironic? You see, the idea for this post has been floating around in my head for several weeks now. Then just week I was chatting with a friend of mine after church and in the midst of a conversation about local events and farms, she turns and looks right at me and says, “Do you think CSA’s are worth it?”
I was like, “Whoa. I’m TOTALLY writing a post on that next week. I’m glad I’m not the only one who wonders about this!”
And so this weird question in my head was validated. It’s a good thing too, because there’s a lot to know about CSA’s that we could all benefit from. So let’s talk about it: Is a CSA worth it?
Is a CSA Worth It?
First off, let’s all get on the same page. CSA stands for community-supported agriculture, but it’s also been known for community-shared agriculture too (especially in Canada). In either case, it’s basically a big box of yummy, random and delicious produce that comes from local, community sources. CSA’s can run as short as 4 weeks with a trial version, through a 10 week or 23 week season, or even year-round. It’s like a packaged-deal version of the farmer’s market without having to go to the farmer’s market (comparing your local farmer’s market to your available CSAs is another factor to weigh in when choosing your produce go-to).
Depending on the program, you can pay weekly, in full, or in installments throughout the season. Nine times out of ten, the cost is non-refundable, but you can put a box on hold if you’re going to be out of town (which means you’ll get an extra week added at the end of your subscription time frame). Some even allow you to switch out certain foods if you know for a fact you won’t eat them (usually for allergy purposes, not because you simply don’t like something).
From one week to the next, you really have no idea what you’ll get. But you can definitely count on it being local, fresh and in-season!
Most CSA organizers will tell you up front approximately how many pounds of produce you’ll get each week. Some CSA’s offer different portion sizes too, like a small box or family size, so you can choose based on what is best for the size of your family and how much you like to eat outside “normal” fruits and vegetables.
Just so you can get an idea of what a typical box includes, here are what the past three week’s of boxes from my local CSA have included:
- Week 1: 1 bunch broccoli, 1 head romaine, 2 cucumbers, 1 bunch beets, 1 garlic bulb, 3 baskets strawberries, 1 bunch carrots, 1 bunch radishes, 1 bunch spinach, 1 basket figs (all organic)
- Week 2: 1 bunch kale, 1 head cauliflower, 1 bunch curly leaf parsley, 1 head green leaf lettuce, 3 baskets strawberries, 1 lb mushrooms, 1 lb green beans, 6 zucchini, 1 bunch green onions, 1 head red cabbage (all organic) – pictured above, via Instagram
Note the “all organic” in parenthesis. While MY CSA is all organic, not all of them are. It really depends on where you live and what type of foods are local to you. At the very least though, the organization should tell you what in the box is organic, and what isn’t.
Most CSA’s tell you either via email or with a flyer what all is included in the box, just in case you’ve never seen that particular item before. It also includes a recipe or two, which is SUPER helpful when you really aren’t quite sure what to make with all the new-to-you produce.
Convenience… Or Lack Thereof?
Visiting the local farmers market is truly fun for me and the kids, but it’s hard to make it sometimes with the hours it’s open. It’s also hard to get the kids to keep their hands to themselves… those fruits and berries are just too tempting!
Plus if I’m really honest, the “normal” fruits and vegetables are well… comfortable. Without a doubt, I know we’ll eat carrots, apples, bananas and potatoes. But a full pound of mushrooms and two huge leeks when 2/3 of the family questions EVERYTHING you put in every dish? Um, not sure if that’s going to fly.
Oh yeah, then there’s the curly parsley that my dad (the chef) tells me is used mostly for garnish.
Garnish?! I don’t know about you guys, but my meals just aren’t fancy enough for garnish, LOL! (Thankfully, you guys pulled through with some AWESOME ideas via Facebook – THANK YOU!).
For me, walking into the shop to pick up a box completely prepared ready to go… well it’s good for me. It’s good that I don’t get to decide what goes in it. It forces me to get creative in the kitchen and come up with recipes that both the adults AND the kids will like. Like making a sauce out of mushrooms and cauliflower, and subbing it into macaroni and cheese with carrots and kale.
Oh yes, yes I did! I put FIVE vegetables into macaroni and cheese and they INHALED it!
It was truly an epic moment as a mom.
We also strayed from our beloved NY-style pizza crust and tried this zucchini pizza crust instead. In which case this new recipe experiment also taught me to a) read the directions, and b) the right way to squeeze excess water out of zucchini. (Photo above via Instagram again – come follow me already, will ya?!)
Some think the spontaneity of a CSA box is a bit too unpredictable. Frankly, if it weren’t for someone else picking out those vegetables, I never would have picked them. Which means my kids would grow up eating the same old veggies all the time. Which kinda goes against my goal of raising my kids to enjoy a broad range of foods, in an effort for them NOT to be picky eaters.
Not to mention the nutrients that we’d all be missing out on too… And some of those fruits and veggies are actually pretty darn tasty!
It’s really tough to price compare my local CSA to all CSA’s across the board, so we’ll just use this past week’s as an example.
Two things to keep in mind:
- everything in this box is organic, therefore we’re using organic prices
- the farm that my subscription is through has a shop, and they offer some of THE BEST prices on organic produce in our area, so we’re using their shop prices for comparison
Let’s take a look at the most recent box, week #3. Using prices from the shop:
- 2 bunch broccoli – $1.75
- 1 head red leaf lettuce – $1.50
- 1.5lbs leeks – $2.25
- 1.5lbs cherries – $8.99
- 1 stalk celery – $1.50
- 1 basket strawberries – $2.50
- 1lb apricots – $4.95
- 1 bunch cilantro – $1.50
- 2 cucumbers – $2
- 1lb heirloom tomatoes – $5
Total Cost = $31.94
The per-week cost of my CSA is $23. They offer a discount if you prepay for either 10 or 23 weeks, reducing the per week cost to as low as $21. That means you could save up to $44 each month by prepaying for an entire season of fresh, organic produce.
Extra Fun Stuff
Sometimes CSA’s includes fun extras like freshly baked in-house chocolate chip cookies. Which the kids and I may or may not have eaten before we left the parking lot.
Other examples of fun stuff include freshly cut flowers, a pint of jam or an extra basket of berries. It just depends on what’s going on that week and what they’re able to give. To me, it’s a fun little surprise to look forward to and enjoy.
Some CSA’s also offer discount cards to certain shops or farms. My local CSA offers discounts to their shop, 5% off to those who buy 10 weeks and 10% off if you prepay for 23 weeks. Considering their prices are already competitive, this becomes icing on the cake.
One last little bonus item – supporting a CSA means supporting a small, family-owned business. CSA’s by nature are local, so there’s a slim chance it’ll be owned by agribusiness. My local CSA is owned by a Christian family and considering the farm IS the family business, we’re honored to support them.
Things to Consider Before Committing
Before you commit to a CSA, here are a few questions (and answers) to consider.
How much do you normally spend on produce each month? Each week?
Some argue that it’s cheaper to buy produce at supermarkets because of the mass production. But that’s not always the case. Use your receipts and be honest here – how much do you really spend on produce?
Last month we spent $93. We spent $83 the month before. And I’ll tell you this right now – not all of it was organic. If it was, my totals would have been WAY higher.
A four week subscription to this CSA costs $92. It wouldn’t cover ALL of our produce needs for the month (gotta feed our banana fetish!), but it would cover a good chunk of it and it would definitely give us our fair share of organic produce. We probably wouldn’t buy as many (if any) carrots or kale or lettuce or most of the other veggies we currently do. Instead, we’d cook from whatever came in the box.
The same goes for the fruit we snack on too. See those cherries and apricots up there? They’re awesome. I spoiled my dinner by eating some of each. And a tomato too.
Can you afford to prepay?
Coming up with almost $500 up front to pay for an entire season’s subscription (which is the best deal in the long run) is tough. BUT, if you know you want to do this, you can start saving now and commit to next year. The theory is no different than buying a half cow or a large bulk order from Azure. If something is important enough to you, you’ll find a way to make it happen, right? In this case, the only thing different is what you’re getting in return.
How limited is your access to organic produce?
Here in California, we have abundant access to organic produce. However, I know not all of you are as fortunate. For some, growing gardens are their best effort for fresh, organic produce. For others, it’s a CSA.
Seriously – will you eat what they give you?
If none of the produce above would EVER go into your grocery cart, let alone your dinner table, then don’t even bother. You’ll find yourself frustrated with all the variety, clueless with what to do with it and stressed that you’re wasting food (and money). Be honest with yourself, because that’s a big chunk of change to waste if you’re not going to eat the food. This is when it might be smart to try a sample week or two before committing to an entire season.
Is it too much food?
I look in our CSA box and wonder how in the world we’ll eat it all. And then next Wednesday rolls around and magically all the food is gone. I blame the little fingers.
If you won’t eat all of this in one week, remember you have the option to put weeks on hold. One way to ensure food isn’t wasted is putting every other week on hold, or even splitting a CSA subscription with a friend. Each family takes what they love best and split the rest down the middle.
Or maybe joining a CSA is a reason to start inviting more people over for dinner!
Finding a CSA That Best Suits You
Not all CSA’s are created equal, so it’s important to find one that best fits you and your family’s financial and nutritional goals. Just a few of the differences:
- Prices can range from $12-$50 each week.
- Some deliver; some require pick-up.
- Some offer flexible days to pick-up; some don’t.
- Some are just a few weeks; some are year-round.
- Some offer “extras” like eggs, bread and jam; some don’t.
If you’re not sure about whether to join or not, I suggest you don’t UNTIL you’re able to really find one that you like. Honestly, if I hadn’t received my subscription as a gift, I wouldn’t be doing it this year – but it’s only because of poor planning on my part!
The season started before I was ready, and the cash certainly wasn’t in hand. HOWEVER, now that I’ve literally tasted the fun and deliciousness that comes from a CSA, you bet I’ll be saving my pennies for next year!
Here are a few links to help you get started finding a CSA near you, whether it’s this year or next.