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Can You Eat Healthier and Save Money at the Same Time?

Written by Laura Martinez - 8 Comments

We recently signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce delivery program. We paid our annual membership fee and the deliveries are set to run from next month through the end of October. I’ve heard from others that CSAs can be expensive to join, but that there can be valuable health benefits. Today, I want to share the process of weighing the costs and benefits of a CSA program in case you’ve been considering something similar.

Grocery bills and expenses

I started by analyzing our current grocery needs. For the past year or so, we’ve spent an average of $200-$250/month. We’ve tried our best to save money on groceries while maintaining a reasonably healthy diet, but eating well isn’t cheap.

How to save on groceries

When we shop for groceries, we do our best to look for deals and bargains for items that we’d actually eat. We’ve found a few things that could lower our bill. I hope they can help you trim the fat from your groceries.

  • Keep a shopping list ready. I hate realizing that we missed something important and then having to run out and buy it at the closest store, which can be pricier. Using a whiteboard can help organize your list during the week, but be sure to take a copy with you when you head to the store.
  • Buy meat in bulk, portion it, and freeze it. By buying in bulk and dividing it up, you can bring the cost per pound way. For ground beef, I divvy it up according to meal plans like tacos, hamburgers, chili, and meatloaf.
  • Take advantage of sales on items that you’d actually buy without the sale. Sometimes I get an urge to buy something just because it’s on sale even though it’s not something that we use a lot, or even at all. When you do that sort of thing, you’re not really saving money, you’re just spending more.

Since the CSA deliveries will vary in terms of what we get each week, and they’re mainly produce items, we’ll still be buying quite a few “regular” groceries. In general, the advantage of the grocery stores is that many vegetables and fruits are present throughout the year, regardless of the local season. The disadvantage is that the price can be high at times, and the quality isn’t always great.

CSA costs and benefits

One of our reasons we hesitated to sign up for the CSA program in the first place was the upfront cost. The details vary by program and location, but it’s typical to make a big upfront payment at the start of the program. For example, here are the costs with typical local CSA programs:

  • Pre-pay your account with $200-$500. This allows you to order on a weekly basis as different types of produce come into season. You can choose the quantity and items you want by placing an order. Pick up is at a convenient location in the city.
  • Pre-pay by April for the May-September season for $400-$500. With this plan, you can order on a weekly basis and pick up at the farm or a convenient location in the city.
  • Pay for the full May-September season by first week in May for $500. As above, you can pick up your items throughout the season at specific locations in the city.

Our biggest financial concern was paying upfront for the food, but not using a good portion of the items. We thus ended up going for a plan that allowed us to pay on a weekly basis. The annual membership fee for the program we’re trying out this year is $15, and the produce is delivered weekly at a cost of $22 for a small box or $40 for a large box.

If you’re thinking that you can get rock-bottom prices with a CSA program, you’re mistaken. While many participants I talked were happy with the high quality of the food, the farmers that grow it are looking to get a fair price for their goods. You may save a bit of money because there are fewer middlemen involved, but you’re not going to get a screaming bargain.

Saving money on our food

One of our main goals in this experiment was to start eating healthier. By making some adjustments to our diet last year, we were able to lose weight and gain energy. Encouraged by this, we figured that incorporating some more local food in our diet would be more beneficial in the long run. If nothing else, having a fresh produce delivery on a weekly basis will entice us to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Another benefit is that the fewer trips we take to the grocery stores, the less tempted we’ll be to grab junk food. That means more of our money will be going towards nutritional food rather than empty calories. We’ll also be increasing the variety of produce we eat as they come in season.

Thoughts on joining a CSA

If you’re interested in joining a CSA, you really need to take a look at the big picture, and not just the bottom line price. Be sure to consider the health impact as well as the value of your time. While a CSA might not be for everyone, we’re very excited to try it out this year.

If you’ve ever participated in a CSA program, I’d love to hear about your experiences. How much did it cost? Did you enjoy it? Would you do it again?

Published on March 15th, 2011 - 8 Comments
Filed under: Frugality

About the author: helps families achieve financial freedom by sharing tips for reducing debt and building freelance income over at Couple Money.

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8 Responses to “Can You Eat Healthier and Save Money at the Same Time?”

  1. 1
    BG Says:

    I would gladly pay twice the amount for a decent tomato. You go to grocery stores for cheap, tasteless produce. You go to a farmers market for quality and value.

    We haven’t signed up for a delivery program (yet), but we do visit the farmers markets in our surrounding towns.

    I can’t wait for some good summer tomatoes!

  2. 2
    Amber Says:

    I agree it is a ‘big picture’ investment. That is exactly how I view it – an investment in my health and in my community. Buying a CSA means you are buying shares of the farm. The farmer has the upfront capital to plant and work the fields before harvest, and you reap the rewards (or failure, if it’s a bad year for crops).
    One great option is many CSAs will let you work off part of your share on the farm – definitely worth asking about if you want to lower your upfront cost and the farm is not too far.

    Another fun citizen-farmer joint venture is going in for a share of an animal. A group of friends can buy and split the meat from a slaughter directly from the farmer who raises the animal. We did it with 10 people for a 1/2 steer, which is about 300 lbs of meat, or 30 lbs a piece of different cuts. We distributed via lottery so everyone got some of their top choices but not all the steaks. Not especially cheaper than grocery store, but definitely worth it! We all live in the city, so this was a really fun way to connect to our food – which is the same big benefit I get from CSA.

  3. 3
    Steve Says:

    I don’t value organic and/or local at multiple times the price of “mainstream” produce. So I’ve never found a CSA that seemed like even a decent deal to me. In fact we get local, though usually not organic, produce at a produce stand for less money than it seems a CSA would cost. I have tried once or twice but the box ran out before the week did (we eat a lot of veggies.) Why would I pay more money for less produce than I need? I really want it to work, but it doesn’t for us.

  4. 4
    Rete Says:

    It’s nice you get to choose which veggies you want each week. We did a CSA last year and a few years before that. We probably got our money’s worth out of it ($350 I think for April-October), since we didn’t buy veggies at the store and tried to use as much as we could out of the box, but there were a few weeks that we looked at the box and asked “What is that?” We did try a few new things but there was quite a bit of waste as new boxes came in and we hadn’t finished the last box yet.

  5. 5
    Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter Says:

    We also use a CSA and we love it. I still have produce in my freezer from last year. I love the feeling of supporting local growers and eating organic goods.

  6. 6
    fairy dust Says:

    I’ve done local CSA shares 3 different years now, and while I like the community support aspect of it and the idea of fresh-picked veggies in general, I’m not a firm believer that organic = better in every case. I also never really had a choice in what I got each week – it was pretty much dictated by what the farm decided to grow, and frankly after the 57th bunch of carrots, I was done with that. So unless a new CSA program opens up here where I might actually have a say in what I receive in my share box each week, I will visit the farmers’ market stalls instead.

  7. 7
    Kelli Says:

    We have belonged to our local CSA for several years now. Like you we joined because we wanted to eat healthier not necessarily because we feel the need to eat organic. The upfront cost can be a little scary at first but I feel it is well worth it – plus our CSA has a payment plan if you so choose. If I take my cost and divide as a weekly cost, I am paying much less than I would pay for non-organic produce at the grocery store and if I actually itemize what I get and comparison shop at the store, I am actually saving a whopping amount per week. The biggest benefit for me though is I that we as a family have been able to try, and find out that we like vegetables that I never would have thought to pick up on my own at the store.

  8. 8
    Annette Campbell Says:

    I am not into CSA but, like you, I am into saving money and eating healthier food, organic produce included. From what I learned about CSAs, it supports several causes like helping local farmers, helping the environment, and eating fresh and healthy food. But my husband and I have found a better way of doing those things and saving money in the process.

    We helped organize a group of friends and neighbors so we could buy healthy food in bulk. Aside from money, we save freezer space, time and effort since we use an online tool called SplitStuff (http://splitstuff.com) which makes splitting easier and faster.

    I believe this is looking at the bigger picture too, without necessarily investing a lot.

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