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The Money Mom: The Price of Produce

iStock_000009856269XSmallAs the mother of two growing teenagers, I’m always on the lookout for ways to keep our household’s food costs down, while keeping our household’s food healthy.  And this time of year, that’s not so hard – local produce is abundant, and that very often makes it cheaper.

But the choice of where to buy that produce has always overwhelmed me a little bit.  Last year, I joined a local CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  If you’re not familiar with the concept, it basically involves buying a share in a local farm. Then each week – or every two weeks, depending on the plan you sign up for and the farm you purchase it from – you receive a box brimming with produce.  I was able to experiment with vegetables (kale, swiss chard) that I probably wouldn’t pick up in my local grocery store.  But it had its downfalls – one week, we got a single ear of corn, which is hard to make use of in a family of four.

One thing I know from years of reporting is that if I’m having a problem, you might be as well.  So I thought I’d do a little digging and break down the pros and cons of our summer vegetable shopping options – CSAs, farmer’s markets, traditional grocery stores – focusing not just on price, but convenience and environmental impact as well.

Convenience. The grocery store is probably by far the most convenient option of the three, if only because most are open all day, if not 24 hours, so you can drop in on your own schedule.  CSAs generally require you to pick up your purchases during a set window or two each week, says Kim Danger, author of Instant Bargains: 600+ Ways to Shrink Your Grocery Bills and Eat Well for Less.  “For some, the pick up times aren’t convenient.  In my town, the only pick up times are on Saturday mornings, and we’re gone a lot on summer weekends, so it doesn’t work for us.”  You need to consider your schedule before signing up.  Farmer’s markets can be open one day a week or several days a week, depending on your town.

The other consideration here, of course, is selection.  When you go the grocery store, you’ll find a wide variety of produce, including items that are out of season or shipped from other countries (and in my opinion, don’t generally taste as good).  You’ll also be able to pick up the other items you need in one trip – you won’t find laundry detergent at your local farmer’s market or in your CSA share.  The farmer’s market is one step up, however, in that you get to select the items you need individually, based on your family’s preferences, what you already have in your pantry, and what you feel like cooking and eating that week.  With most CSAs, you don’t get any say in what ends up in your box, so you may need to get creative.

Environment. While many grocery stores these days carry local and organic produce, you have to do a little digging to find it, and ask some questions about where, exactly, the item came from (the term local is rather subjective). So there’s no question that CSAs and farmer’s markets are the winners of this category.  Let’s start with a CSA, which, by definition, allows you to buy directly from the farmer – no middle man required.  You know exactly what you’re getting, how it was grown, and the farmer will gladly answer any questions you have.  Many CSAs, in fact, send shares out with newsletters describing what’s in the box and how to cook with it, in case you’re unfamiliar with a particular item.  You may also be invited to tour the farm where your produce is grown.  “CSAs are a great way to introduce kids to agriculture.  Farm visits are easy to arrange since you often form a relationship with the supplier,” says Danger.  “Kids can see where the food comes from.”

A farmer’s market also allows you to talk directly to the farmer as you’re shopping – or, at the very least, someone who works on the farm and should be informed about how it is run and how produce is grown.  Just beware – some farmer’s markets allow venders who sell conventional produce that isn’t grown locally, so if that’s a concern, be sure to ask questions.

Finally, cost. When you purchase a share in a CSA, you pay a chunk of money upfront, which means you may have to do a little restructuring to your budget.  But you’ll save in the end, sometimes big.  I looked at a CSA from Garden of Eve Organic Farm on Long Island.  The cost of a full share is $510, and for that, you’ll be able to pick up a weekly delivery from June through November.  They say it comes out to about $21 a week.  This week, for example, your bounty would include two pounds of zucchini, three pounds of cucumbers, one head of lettuce, one bunch of kale, one bunch of dill, a head of broccoli, a head of Napa cabbage, and a bunch of sweet salad turnips – all organic.  I ran the numbers at my local grocery store and all of that came to $29.70 – and I couldn’t find organic Napa cabbage.  On top of that, Danger says CSA members may get other perks, as well. “Sometimes they’ll get a discount on produce, meat or dairy over and above what is included in their CSA package, and they often get the best looking cuts of meat and produce.” At my CSA, only the members were guaranteed fresh eggs from the farmer’s chickens (if you’d never had a farm fresh egg, you don’t know what you’re missing). And, depending on your CSA, you may be able to work a few hours a week or month in exchange for an even bigger discount off your share.  A farmer’s market will likely cost a little more than a CSA, and a little less than a grocery store, depending on what you’re buying and if it’s organic.

So there you have it.  For my family, at least for this year, the farmer’s market and local grocery store work best, mostly because my kids are at camp this month – which significantly cuts our food bill, anyway – and my schedule doesn’t jive well with our CSA’s pick up schedule.  But next year, I’ll certainly be looking back to this post to make a decision all over again. If you want to find a farmer’s market or CSA in your area, try doing a search on localharvest.org.

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