Is Buying a CSA Share Right for You?
Have you been eyeing the goodies other people get in their CSA boxes (whether in person or on social media) and thinking about buying your own share? Perhaps you are on the fence. You find yourself wondering if it might get you to eat more kale… but then wondering if you really want to eat more kale.
The benefits of a CSA share are undeniable: reasonably priced fresh prodce, locally and sustainably grown, delivered weekly. But make no mistake, it’s definitely a commitment. And while it only lasts for the summer (at least in my climate), as with any commitment, it pays to do some careful considering before you jump in.
I hemmed and hawed for a couple years before finally taking the plunge last summer. Turns out that was just right for me… I was far enough along in my kitchen adventures to manage it all. Now, as I get ready to sign up for my second year, I’m sharing what I’ve learned so far in hopes it will help some of you get off that fence and in on a CSA this year. If it’s right for you.
But wait… What the heck is a CSA?
CSA is short for Community Supported (or Shared) Agriculture. They offer a different model for farmers to reach consumers, with no middle men (and thus, no wondering where your food came from on our end). In most cases — and what this article is primarily about — the offering is vegetables, but they also exist for other products such as fruit and meat.
The difference between a CSA and buying at the farmers’ market or farmgate is you don’t pick out individual items to buy as needed. Instead, you purchase a “share” before the season starts, then receive a weekly pick-up (at the farm or a central meeting point) of goods throughout the growing season. Exactly what is in the box depends on what your farmer plants, what actually grows and produces, and what time of year it is. Everything you get is in peak season, when it tastes its absolute best! It’s like having a garden, without having all the work that comes with it.
Most CSA farms are practising sustainable growing methods, that produce healthy food for you as well as a healthy environment. They won’t all be certified organic, but usually follow organic principles. The best part is, if you have any questions about how the produce is grown, you can simply ask!
Basically, think of it like a subscription box, but instead of getting some kind of product to try, you get the best of nature’s bounty!
#1 Consideration: How do you eat, cook, and meal plan?
Ok, so this is a veggie box. It goes without saying you probably need to like veggies. Not just some veggies, but a pretty good variety, prepared a variety of ways. For instance, if you’re a mad salad lover, you’re in luck, as pretty much all programs include some kind of lettuce every week. However, if you aren’t fond of cooked vegetables, you might find it difficult to deal with, say, the many squash that will come your way.
Speaking of squash and such, are you at all accustomed to eating seasonally? Or will it upset you that the butternuts aren’t coming in until October, when the beans are long gone. As someone who grew up eating from the garden, this is one of the things I enjoy most about my CSA share. But if you’re used to going to the grocery store and getting whatever you crave, whenever, this model might be a bit of a shock to you. It might be wise to try it out slowly for a summer or two by getting your produce at a farmers’ market instead of the grocery store.
How you meal plan will also have a huge effect on whether the CSA will work for you. If you’ve been using a meal planning service where the grocery list is set out for most every meal, the CSA offering won’t fit into those little tick boxes. On the other hand, if you create your own meal plan and shopping list, you may be able to work it out around your produce, if you are willing. Just know it will likely require searching out some new recipes, or making substitutions in old standbys. If you’re pretty free wheeling in your meal plans (or are like, “What is meal planning?”) and like to find “inspiration” in your fridge, then a CSA is probably just perfect for you.
I would also recommend you have a little bit of comfort around the kitchen before you jump into a CSA. While many of the veggies are wonderful eaten raw and alone, others are best put into some sort of creation. And in total honesty, there will be times you will have to get real creative to deal with something you aren’t fond of, or that was particularly bountiful. But Swiss Chard aside, I personally LOVED having the CSA goodies as a jumping off point for my culinary experimentation. That said, I’m a person who generally loves finding new recipes, or even making them up as I go. If you also like to push your boundaries in the kitchen, you’ll probably love a CSA.
Time, Time, Time
Ah, time. Doesn’t it just like to stick it’s constraining nose in everything. Even something as grounding and wonderful as joining a CSA share. While it’s nothing like the time invested and responsibility involved in having your own garden, I feel I need to mention the time involved in managing your bounty.
First off, look very carefully at the pick-up times offered by the farm you are considering. I know, in our busy lives, it might be tempting to think something like, “Ok, I can get there on the way to the boys’ soccer practice.” Don’t. These are beautiful fresh vegetables we are talking about. They won’t stay so fresh in a hot car in a parking lot, so make sure you can get home promptly once you’ve picked them up. Furthermore, make sure you can spend some quality time with your veggies when you get there. Without a doubt, I found that prepping and carefully storing the vegetables was absolutely essential to actually using them up throughout the week (and also, keeping track of what was in there with my CSA planner). Doing this could take up to an hour some weeks.
You’ll also need time to cook all that food through the week, and I needed some time to Google, “What do you do with ….?” when a vegetable was totally foreign to me.
Finally, take your travel plans into consideration. Do you take a big summer vacation? Some CSAs have a “skip a week” option, but if not, you will have to decide what happens to your share in your absence (you may be able to donate it or get a friend to take it), and if the cost of joining is still worthwhile once you miss a week or two. If you aren’t sure about your options, ask the farmer — they are more than happy to answer your questions.
Consider weekends away too. If you take mini getaways often (and don’t pack food), it may impact your ability to eat up all the goodness in one week.
While all this prepping, cooking, and eating can be time consuming, on the plus side, having everything packed and ready for pickup can actually save you some time grocery shopping. Well, it did for me anyway, because I shop like a lost little lamb on the best of days.
And now we consider life’s other great thing we always seem to be considering. Cash. Because you pay for the whole season before the harvest comes in, it’s a big chunk of change all at once (typically a few hundred). Some programs split it into two or three payments — and if they don’t list it as an option it doesn’t hurt to ask — but they will still be due early in the year. If you know ahead of time you want to sign up, you can start socking the money away early. However, if you’re just deciding at sign-up time, it can be daunting…
All I can say is, it will cut your grocery bill down later in the year.
Enough to be worthwhile? That probably depends on your shopping habits. If you’re buying all or mostly organic at the grocery store, then yes, a CSA will be cheaper. If you buy conventional produce at the grocery store, it’s harder to say (but I can definitely say the quality will be worlds better, and it’s a reasonably affordable way to experience it). Compared to farmers’ markets and stands? It’s close. I didn’t do a detailed item by item comparison, but I did take a general look when I happened to be market shopping and compared it to the average weekly price of my CSA. In the early season, it was near equal or slight advantage to the market, but later on when the harvest was more plentiful, the CSA won out. You might also consider the cost of impulse buys when you head to the market or grocery store for one item (not that that would ever happen to me… lol) versus knowing you have more than enough at home thanks to your CSA.
So bottom line, I think the money spent is worthwhile, as long as you actually eat what you get. And so, it goes back to my first two points about preferences and time. If you honestly think you won’t eat most of what’s in your CSA, go ahead and purchase your veggies individually as needed (preferably at a farmers’ market).
So You’re In? Here’s the Nitty Gritty
Ok, so you’ve read this far and you’re pretty sure you can do it. You’re ready for your first CSA share. But what’s next? You’ve been researching all your options and you’re not sure what to pick. Here’s my advice:
- Find the right pick-up location and time. It may seem like an afterthought when you are considering prices, varieties and growing practices, but I can’t emphasize this enough: you need to be able to get your precious haul home and put away if you’re going to be able to enjoy it.
- Pick a manageable share size. Most CSA programs offer various share sizes for different family and appetite sizes. It can be tempting to want ALL THE VEGGIES but I say start small (at least in year one). It’s easier to pick up some extras to supplement the CSA than it is to figure out what to do with a ton of excess. (I shudder to think about what I would have done with double the Swiss Chard).
- Plan a garden around your CSA. If you’re interested in a CSA, you might also be interested in growing some of your own food, but just don’t have the skill or space to do it all. In that case, choose what you plant around items that might be missing from the CSA (ask your farmer!), veggies you love and want extra of, or ones you want to preserve. Planning this way might save you from having parsley coming out of your ears… not that I know anything about that.
- Get ready for a wild ride. You’re kind of like a gardener now, even if you aren’t directly doing the work. You get to experience the excitement of the first taste, the disappointment of a crop failure, and the joy of plenty. Last year wasn’t even a good one in my parts, and yet here I am in spring, hungry for more!
- Grab my printable CSA planner! The crisper drawer overflows when you’re a CSA member. Having what was in there (plus some plans for what to do with it) right on the fridge door was a LIFESAVER last year. I know I would have wasted a lot more wonderful produce without it. Just click the button below to subscribe and get access to my resource library!