How Much Your CSA Is Really Saving You

(and the lifestyle choices inherent in that savings)

Photo credit: Christopher Paquette, CC BY 2.0.

At about $700 and up for a season of yet-to-be-grown vegetables, CSA shares might be one of the biggest financial commitments we make to food. Every year, as I faithfully sign over a month’s rent for a season of fresh beans, squash, and berries, I sympathize with new parents, home renovators, and city planners alike: Yes, this project is expensive and time-consuming, but it’s going to be worth it!

But is a CSA worth it? Let’s break it down.

To start: a CSA is going to cost you a month’s rent. You earned that money, dutifully saved it, and now here you are, shelling it out in one shot and not even for delivery. I mean, you have to pick this stuff up yourself, which feels as antiquated as the wooden boxes in which you carry home your food, flecks of dirt still attached. On average, you get about 22 weeks of vegetable pick-up for your $700, which breaks down to a little more than $30 per week.

So yes, a CSA could add $30 to your weekly food budget if you don’t cut back anywhere else—which means if you’re on a tight budget, you have to find something to cut. If you’re the kind of person who regularly dines out, you could try eating one fewer restaurant meal per week, but you probably won’t. It’s easy in early April, staring glassy-eyed at photos of chickens on some farm (less than) 100 miles away, to imagine yourself cooking a hearty meal of fresh veggies every night. Now take a good look at yourself. Remember all those vegan burgers on the way home from the gym. Every bahn mi you ate on a park bench with your best friend last summer. Ask yourself: Is making Vietnamese pickles something I even want to take a stab at? Ask yourself: Do I want to find out how they smash all the veggies into the burger? Ask yourself: Even if I don’t want to do pickles and veggie burgers, can I handle steaming some asparagus or roasting a few potatoes?

You do? Great. Because to make this worth it, you need to actually cook those vegetables.

That’s also where the savings come in. For the amount of food you’re taking home each week, you are definitely saving money if you would have bought the same vegetables and fruits at a grocery store. Most people get in trouble with their share because it becomes an additional expense rather than a replacement for the bulk of their grocery bill.

A good goal for your seasonal share is to cut the grocery spending by 30 to 50 percent weekly for the approximate 22 weeks you have it. This will reduce your yearly grocery bill by 13 to 21 percent. If you spend the national average, based on USDA data for a two-person household on a low-cost eating plan, you’ll be saving somewhere between $780 and $1,260 for the year. Challenge yourself to use everything from your share. Build meals around one vegetable, one starch, and one protein and get in the habit of reaching into your CSA box every day.

This doesn’t mean you have to make every meal at home. I never missed a friend’s birthday dinner or even skipped Sunday night Thai food with my roommates. I simply stopped ordering food for myself to enjoy alone and I curtailed the habit of meeting up with friends exclusively over large meals like dinner, especially on weeknights. I managed to kick about 50 percent of meals eaten out. I was dining out for about four dinners weekly, so this saved me approximately $60 per week. And it didn’t stop in the fall — once a habit is formed, it’s more likely to become a lifestyle. During the first year I had a CSA share, I saved a little over $3,000 in restaurant bills. Combining my grocery savings in season with my newly kicked codependence on restaurants, I managed to pocket about $4,100 in food savings.

Be aware that there are a few extra non-food costs to consider: tote bags, knives, bowls, cutting boards, pots, pans, and cookbooks. Your initial CSA investment might include a kitchen equipment make-over. I found I needed a few new gadgets: a decent peeler, a grater, an immersion blender, and leak-proof plastic containers for bringing my homemade lunches to work. After some months without a mandolin, I bought one at a restaurant supply store, which was much cheaper than a kitchen store. Buying as I needed saved me time and money, rather than one binge-buy at a box store.

Aside from small appliances, trust thrift stores for most kitchen gadgets. Start off with a basic tool and give yourself time to decide if you absolutely need its $90 equivalent. Learn how to use new tools. Gain knife skills, but don’t be afraid to buy new knives. Used knives are often dull and worn out, but the $30 knife from the hardware store is going to be just as good for the aspiring cook as the $130 knife.

A CSA is a way to better afford more organic, local produce, and support a farmer in your community in the process. The reward of the share comes in the form of knowledge that you got a steal on high quality (often organic) food, learned to prepare it yourself, and saved a little money along a bumpy road of dirty dishes and delicious meals. As with all big undertakings, the future return lies in the details, the elbow grease, and your time investment—but you might be surprised to learn that you actually enjoy eating your vegetables.

Jillian Jason is a farm manager and avid eater. Her favorite vegetables include leeks, radicchio, and heirloom tomatoes. Her favorite season is fall.

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