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?