The Newbie Chronicles: Is a CSA cost-effective?

Let’s do a thought experiment.  C’mon, it won’t hurt.  Let’s see if we can answer the question, “which is cheaper, a CSA half-share or buying the same veggies at the local supermarket?”  This thought popped into my mind early in the season.

Even if you’re an ardent CSA advocate, I’ll bet you’ve had this niggling thought buried deep down.  So, let’s see if we can nail down an answer, or at least a close approximation.

Here’s my approach:

  • Each week, record the quantities and type of produce received for my CSA half-share in a spreadsheet.
  • Periodically, visit a local grocery store, write down their prices for the same produce in this spreadsheet.
  • Total what I would have spent at the grocery store for the week. Sum these totals across the CSA season to determine the value of my CSA half-share.
  • Compare this final total against my initial cash outlay.

As I proceeded through the season doing this thought experiment, I hit several snags.  I had to make judgement calls, and compromises to overcome the snags.  Here’s what I encountered, and my solution for each:

Uh oh, I "pegged" my cheap kitchen scale.

Uh oh, I “pegged” my cheap kitchen scale.

  • Prices vary from store to store and from time to time at the same store. My approach was to settle on a single store: the grocery section of my local Meijer’s. They had the largest selection of produce matching my CSA “basket.” I also chose the latest price to value the produce. That value would be closest to the present.
  • I couldn’t always find organic veggies. Given the CSA uses organic farming methods, I tried to use organic veggies to calculate the value. Trouble was, not all veggies have organic versions. So, I had to use conventionally-produced veggies sometimes.
  • Quantity measurements are not exactly standardized. In the store, veggies are sold per pound, per each, or per bag. Trouble was, the weekly CSA schedule doesn’t always match how the store measures the veggies. Sometimes I’d count the little whatevers in the package and calculate a “per each” price. Then multiply that by the number of whatevers in my record of the half-share schedule.
  • And how do you value Swiss Chard (or other big leafy veggie) when you receive 5 leaves at the CSA, but the store sells it bundled? My compromise was to declare: “If I bought this at the store, I would buy a bound bunch. So that is my basic price unit.” My CSA share was approximately the same number of leaves (give or take), so the value of my CSA Swiss Chard would be the store bundle price. Ugly, but reasonable. (At first I made a vague attempt to calculate a “per leaf” cost but realized that was silly and abandoned the idea.)
  • Then there were those “uh oh” moments when my kitchen scale topped out at 16 oz., or I’d eaten the evidence before I realized how the store measures it. For those, I’d grab a similar-sized veggie at the store (like a head of cabbage), rush over to a scale, record the weight, and rush back to the shelf. I figured anyone observing me would have considered me mad.
  • The store doesn’t carry everything in my CSA basket. Some items (like Romanesca) had a cousin (Cauliflower). I used the cousin’s price. Four veggies had no relatives (like Garlic Scapes). Because they were such a small quantity, I omitted them from my total.

And the result?  Yes, the CSA was cheaper!  Buying the same produce at Meijer’s would have cost me $336.58.  I achieved a 12% return on my investment of $300.00.  Ya can’t even get that in the stock market.  If I could have determined a price on those 4 items not in the store, or found organic versions of all veggies, my return would have been higher.

Yes, I was trying to compare apples-to-oranges.  And my method, while logical, wasn’t scientific (way too many variables).  Still it gave a good indication about the realized value of my CSA half-share.  So, on cost alone, the CSA was a good value.

I won’t even go into the other beneficial facets of a CSA.  They’re examined elsewhere in this blog.  But if you were trying to convince a friend to join a CSA, suggest that it really can be cheaper.  For me, being cost-effective was a good reinforcement.  Heck, I even signed up for the short Winter CSA at Blandford.  Guess I’m convinced.

About the author:  Dave Gillen didn’t want to eat hotdogs for the rest of his life, so he learned to cook.  His mother taught him to boil water, fry an egg, and make oatmeal cookies.  Dave forgot how to make the cookies, barely remembered how to fry eggs, but is spot on at boiling water.  Currently, he divides his days between being wife Lois’ in-house techno geek and personal chef…and walking his greyhounds.

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