If you're alive and eat vegetables, chances are that you've heard someone buzzing about his or her share in a CSA.
The movement of buying foods direct from local farms has been on the rise for the past few years as America on the whole has become more focused on eating local.
CSAs first gained traction in the early 2000s. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of community-supported agriculture programs grew by an astounding 114 percent!
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So while there's no disputing that they're a bona fide food trend, are CSAs actually good for your wallet or just a popular way to buy more organic vegetables than one human could possibly eat?
LearnVest explores how CSAs work ... and whether one is likely to work for you.
What Is a CSA, Anyway?
CSA, which stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” is a way for a group of people to collectively purchase products from a local farm. Shares can be paid for in cash or labor, but they generally rely on a combination of both. For example, you might pay a flat fee for a 20-week share in a CSA, as well as commit to helping pass out shares one or two weekends during the season.
CSAs typically offer shares twice a year: The summer share lasts from approximately May through August, and the fall share runs from September through November. Some CSAs are even starting to offer year-round programs by adding in winter seasons that run from January to March, depending on each farm's climate and setup.
When most people think of a CSA, they picture local fruits and veggies, but that’s not always the case. CSAs across the country also serve up meat, dairy, flowers, herbs, bread, cheese, coffee, honey—even seafood and soaps. Want to locate a share in your area? LocalHarvest, a website that spotlights organic and local food, has a listing of CSAs across the nation that are searchable by city and state.
What a Share Costs—and What You'll Get
While prices will vary depending on where you call home, most CSAs base their fee structure on the size of the share that you select, the amount of produce (or goods) bundled into the share, and whether you offset the cost through work at the cooperative. Groups of friends—and even entire offices—may also split shares (or half shares) to help whittle down their individual bills.
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The Ditmas Park CSA in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, offers a 20-week summer season with $400 half-shares (feeds 1 to 2) and $600 full shares (feeds 3 to 4). A share includes a combination of fruits and vegetables; additional fruit, eggs, meat and jarred goods can be added for an additional cost.
Split that basic sum and bounty with a friend, and you could receive, say, a small box of broccoli, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers and squash for $7 to $10 a week.
Jeffrey Wilson, a 39-year-old former member of the Ditmas Park CSA, initially signed up for a half-share with a friend because he'd heard the food was great. “It worked for me because, simply put, I ate some of the freshest, best-tasting food I've ever had," says Wilson. "In fact, I would readily join a CSA again, rather than shop at Pathmark.” He recently moved, and while there's a CSA in his new neighborhood, Wilson's still trying to figure out how to make their pickup times work with his work schedule.
There's something magical about having farm-grown veggies delivered straight to your doorstep—or desk.
Last summer, Will Larche, 30, bought a full share in a CSA for $600 with grand visions of cooked veggies in mind. "It was my idea, and I brought it to my office," says the software developer. But despite the fact that the quality of the veggies was amazing, he says, working as much as he does made finding the time to cook—especially for one—"feel stupid," adding that he didn't consider the practicality factor until well after the excitement of buying in wore off.
Is a CSA Right for You?
Of course, there's something magical about having farm-grown veggies delivered straight to your doorstep—or desk. The quandary lies in whether you'd rather shop for what you want, when you want it, or capitalize on the unpredictable weekly dividends you get from a CSA.
For example, maybe you'll be more inspired to cook because a delivery of fresh corn just rolled into your life. Then again, if that week's haul includes an unfamiliar squash or your family just isn't that into leeks, a good portion of your investment could go down the drain.
Not sure if the CSA route is right for you? Ask yourself these five key questions to help determine whether it could work with your lifestyle.
1. Are You a Picky Eater ... or Are You Cooking for One? Does relinquishing control of a portion of your grocery list inspire fear or excitement? Is anyone in your home less than thrilled with outside-the-box options? If so, mystery fruits and veggies are more likely to drain your budget than whet your family's appetite.
2. Do You Have Dietary Restrictions to Consider? If you or your kids have food allergies, someone in your household requires a special diet or you're currently pregnant, a CSA might not be the best fit.
3. Can You Easily Arrange to Get the Food? If you never pick up what you paid for already, a CSA can be the definition of a sunk cost. Then again, if all of your neighbors or coworkers are going in on a share, this might be the easiest way to get more fresh food in your life.
4. Are You Pressed for Time? This question cuts both ways: If you'd really like to be cooking more, but you don't have the time to always stock fresh fruits and veggies, a CSA could be a food fairy in disguise. However, if you think that you like to cook, but in reality you know your Chinese delivery guy by name, you may be buying for your fantasy self.
5. Do You Lack Access to Good Produce? There are definite pros to joining a CSA: It’s generally better-quality produce at a cheaper price—and you get to support local agriculture. If a CSA is your fast ticket to better nutrition, it may be worth a try.