Whether you’re thinking about joining a CSA and are looking for more information, or you have no idea what in the world I’m talking about, this is the one-stop shop for all the information that you need to decide whether a CSA membership is right for you.
What is CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a way for consumers to buy local, fresh food directly from the farmer.
Members pay for a “share” of the farmer’s yield in the beginning of the season and receive portions their share at regular intervals throughout the harvesting season.
Last year, my family purchased a CSA membership at Clagett Farm, an organic farm owned and operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, just outside of Washington D.C.. Clagett Farm strives to use sustainable farming techniques and is noted for distributing free or reduced priced produce to underserved communities in the area.
How does CSA work?
You can become a member of a CSA by purchasing a “share” of the farmer’s produce at the beginning of the season. “Shares” are like subscriptions; you pay ahead of time and get a portion of the farmer’s produce in regular intervals, usually weekly.
There are a few variations of CSA programs that differ in how they deliver the “shares” to the members.
The Claggett Farm CSA that my family participated in was a market-style CSA. In my opinion this is the best style of CSA because it allows you the most control over the process and makes it easier to achieve a zero-waste experience.
At a market style CSA, the produce will be laid out on tables or in bulk bins, much like a farmers market. On pickup day, the farm will specify the different combinations of food that each member can take and allow you to pick and choose to your liking.
Pickup at a market style often offers choices between combinations of produce. For example, a pickup at our farm would allow “1/2 pound combined total of kale, collard greens, and chard”. This lets you to opt out of taking home foods that you know you or your family doesn’t like, take home less of something that you know you won’t be able to finish, and take more of something that you or your family really loves.
Brining reusable bags and being careful in your food selection can make a market-style CSA easily zero-waste.
Before the desire for personal choice lead to market-style CSA pickup, CSAs mainly delivered produce shares to members in pre-packaged boxes that contained their portion of the produce.
This style of CSA may produce more waste than a market-style CSA, because members have little control over the contents of the box or its packaging materials. Some CSA boxes contain plastic bags, rubber bands, or plastic containers to keep the contents separated.
However, this style is a better option for people who don’t have enough time to participate in a market-style pickup on a regular basis.
Some box-style CSAs do offer some customization of your share by allowing members to specify the size of their family and how often they would like to pickup.
Even though CSA boxes may not be zero-waste, they are still low-waste compared to grocery store produce. If you agree with the principles of a CSA and want to participate, but are limited on time, a box-style CSA is still a great option for you.
Advantages of CSA
The main reason that I advocate for considering participating in a CSA is that they are usually zero-waste or low-waste. However, there are a ton of other advantages to CSAs besides the waste reduction aspect.
- They provide you with healthy, organic, fresh, locally grown produce.
- They support local farmers.
- They allow you to see exactly where the food you eat is coming from and the processes taken to grown that food.
- They allow you to develop a relationship with the person who grows your food.
- The expose you to new foods that you might not choose for yourself in the store (some of the foods available for our CSA pickups were things I had never even heard of before!)
- They save money – weather permitting, the amount of food that you are getting per week from a CSA pickup is a lot more than you would be able to get from any store for the same price.
- They usually have added perks – for an additional price you can usually get eggs, honey, or meat. Our farm allowed members to pick their own herbs and flowers for free. They also featured activities (like a kale cook off contest), fresh baked pizza, Christmas trees, and allowed members to take unlimited “ugly” food that nobody else wanted.
- You get to interact with the farmers who are experts on the crops they grow. One of the famers at our CSA gave us a recipe for carrot top pesto! It’s something we would never have thought of on our own. I’ve heard that most CSA staff are loaded with interesting recipes to suggest.
Disadvantages of CSA
- They are risky; poor weather conditions can lead to a bad yield or a short season, and there are no refunds with CSAs.
- They are unpredictable; even a bountiful season can have weeks that are up and down in terms of how much produce you’re bringing home. And members often don’t know what they’re going to get ahead of time, so planning weekly meals can be difficult.
- They can cause food waste, especially the box-style CSAs. Lack of planning and food saving can lead to excess produce that goes to waste.
- They can potentially be a waste of money depending on the cost and average crop yeild in your area compared.
That last disadvantage brings me to a good point; the cost of CSAs.
Because you are paying for your CSA membership in full at the beginning of the season, it can seem like an expensive investment. But when you break down the amount that you are paying per week, and look at the amount of food in each weekly share, CSAs are typically much cheaper than purchasing produce from the grocery store.
Of course, the prices of CSAs will vary based on location, membership specifications, and other factors. However, the average cost of a CSA works out to be $15-$20 per week. However, farms that offer smaller shares for small families can be much cheaper than that.
When you consider the amount of food you’re getting for the price (plus any added perks) and comparing it to how much you would spend for that amount of food at a store, a CSA usually works out to be a much better value.
However, to find out if a CSA actually is the right price for you, do some research. Find out the price of a CSA membership in your area, how many weeks the membership lasts for, and how frequent the pickups are. This will allow you to determine the cost per pickup of your CSA share. Then find some information on past seasons pickups to determine how much food you will likely be receiving over the course of the season. This can be done by looking online for pictures of a typical pickup from the farm, or talking to people in your community who have participated in that particular CSA.
Comparing the cost of the share to the expected return can give you something to compare to the average produce prices at your regular grocery store to determine whether you will be spending more or less money on produce with a CSA membership.
Overall, CSAs are a great source of locally grown, low-waste food. I highly recommend everyone signing up for one this season and giving it a shot. There is a CSA out there to fit anyone, no matter what your eating style. So get out there and find the CSA that’s right for you.
Please comment below if you have any unanswered questions about CSAs or if you would like to share your own CSA experience.