The locally grown food movement has been gaining momentum. At the same time, the high cost of food is challenging all of us to find new ways to cut costs without sacrificing healthy eating.
Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, are popping up all over the country. Through a CSA, consumers can choose to buy shares in a local farm and then receive portions of the farm’s produce once it is harvested. In some areas, CSAs have become so popular there are waiting lists to join.
Food from CSAs has not been genetically altered, harvested prematurely or infused with chemicals to be able to withstand a 1,000-mile or longer journey from the farm to your table. Members of CSAs tend to eat seasonally. And they eat very fresh produce, which has been proven to be more nutritious.
HOW CSA WORKS
Members of CSAs pay dues, which buy shares of a farm. These dues go directly to pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment and labor. Then, the harvest is divided between shareholders. Cost of produce can vary widely from one CSA to another, depending on regional location and other factors.
COST VERSUS BENEFIT
Undoubtedly, it is cheaper to grow your own fruits and vegetables than to buy them at the grocery store. For example, one expert estimates that it costs about $3 for a tomato transplant that will produce up to 25 pounds of the summertime fruit favorite.
It doesn’t get more local than growing produce in your backyard, but not everyone has the skills, expertise or resources to start a farm out back. Home gardening is not the only option for someone who wants to reap the benefits of eating locally produced food. Participating in a CSA can be a great solution.
By joining a CSA, you may not get a better price dollar for dollar, but it will undoubtedly prompt you to cook more often. Members tend to eat at home more because they are getting boxes of delicious, fresh produce every week.
Another benefit of the CSA program is that by supporting local agriculture, consumers support their own community. During a time of economic hardship, where consumers choose to spend their money can make a huge impact, either positively or negatively.
FIND A CSA IN YOUR AREA
The federal government recently reported that there are 12,617 farms participating in CSAs in the U.S. The Local Harvest organization has undertaken the massive project of maintaining a database of all of them.
Keep in mind that community agriculture programs are grassroots entities, so each one is entirely unique.
To get started, go to https://LocalHarvest.org. Search their network by typing in your zip code. An internet search may show more results, but don’t give up if the internet doesn’t yield anything promising.
Go to your local farmers market, and take note of the names of the farms that attend. Talk to their representatives (the farmer is likely to be right there sitting at the table). Sample their produce, and form relationships with the farmers you like. Get their contact information.
It is important to know that with a CSA membership comes the shared risk that farmers face every year. If, say, a hailstorm comes and wipes out all the peppers, there will be no peppers in your box that season.
BEFORE YOU JOIN A CSA
Learn all you can about the CSA before you join. Find out exactly what items you can expect in your box and when you can expect it to arrive. Find out, also, what happens if you are unhappy with the produce after you join.
If you pay month to month, make sure you can cancel easily. If you pay a one-time annual membership fee, find out if it is refundable.
Would you like more information? Go to EverydayCheapskate.com for links and resources for recommended products and services in this column. Mary invites questions, comments and tips at EverydayCheapskate.com, “Ask Mary.” This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a lifestyle blog, and the author of the book “Debt-Proof Living.”