Adventures in CSA: savings and how we shop grocery store circulars

The other day, while heading into dd’s school to pick her up from afterschool care, I was approached by a neighbor who had checked out the blog recently. She commented that she was interested by the findings I’d made on savings from using a CSA rather than buying fruits and veggies from the store, and she had a small bone to pick. As she explained it, she tends to shop based on sale prices and her shopping is certainly influenced by what’s on special every week. I definitely get where she’s coming from, so I wanted to take a moment to explain how I get to the numbers I’ve recorded in my various entries (starting with Adventures in CSA year 1).

My basic premise was to take a CSA box’s contents and compare the price for having selected the very same things from the grocery store where I shop every weekend. We weighed every item that we received from the CSA and I then plugged the prices from the store and the weights (or quantities, if sold by the item) into an Excel spreadsheet that was copied and pasted into the blog post.

The prices I chose were for the closest possible item (which wasn’t necessarily the organic version, since the fruit & veg I got were local but not necessarily organic, per se) and were for the “no-card” price. My store, like so many grocery stores, has an affinity card program where you get better prices by having their card than if you came in off the street not having it. Why would I do this? My rationale was so that I wasn’t biasing the results by listing the prices you’d need to get by giving up personal information. While a lot of people participate in affinity programs, not everyone does and – since the prices at our farmstand don’t ebb and flow based on whether or not they know anything about our purchases – I wanted to approximate what it would be like to purchase the same things if you just came in without a prior relationship with the grocery store.

And then we get to the issue of straight sales. As my neighbor pointed out, sales on specific items influence her purchases. Honestly, the same is true for us. However, when working with a CSA, the box’s contents are controlled by what’s ripe rather than by a store’s attempts to drive specific purchases. For example, right now, there’s not a ton that you’d get in your CSA box other than squash, apples, potatoes and maybe some onions. By contrast, what’s on sale right now at my grocery store (based on their flyer): raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, apples, pears, avocados, grape tomatoes, squash, potatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and baby carrots. Of those, only the apples, squash and potatoes could have been produced locally (and none are marked on the flyer as being local). The berries came from places like Argentina, Chile and Mexico. If we’re lucky, the grape tomatoes and avocados came from California – but it’s likely that at least one, if not both, came from Mexico.

So here’s the rub: especially during the fall and winter months, what gets put on sale at the grocery store may never even show up in a CSA box because it’s only in season thousands of miles away from where we live. That doesn’t mean we won’t buy berries; both of the kids are berry-monsters and love to eat them a half-pint at a time. My point is more around the fact that if you want to buy locally, your purchase decision will be driven by what’s in season and what’s ripe at that particular point. For a place like New England, where the winter months require importing berries and other fruits & veg from farther-flung parts of the world, it’s a great thing that these are ever put on sale so that you’re not paying full freight (quite literally).

My neighbor has an excellent point about sales having an influence, and in New England (as well as other four-season locales) you have to be willing to buy things that aren’t grown locally in order to be able to eat certain foods – like berries – all year ’round. The other option is to preserve things early and often, such as my canning-crazed friend Local Kitchen. And, thankfully, there’s room for lots of different approaches to eating healthy foods all year long.

2 thoughts on “Adventures in CSA: savings and how we shop grocery store circulars

  1. Excellent points, all of them. There’s only one thing I’d like to clarify: a New England-based winter CSA might have a lot more variety than what you’re suggesting. Here’s what I picked up from mine last week:

    Sweet potatoes
    A massive bag of tatsoi
    A slightly less massive bag of mixed baby greens

    Admittedly, most of what’s there is root vegetables that can survive for a long time in storage, but the greens are coming from the farm’s own greenhouse and the last of what’s in the fields right now. (In fact, I’ll be getting those mixed baby greens all winter long.)

  2. There will always be some supplementing for personal preference or holiday celebration. We love the idea of supporting our local economy; a farmer who employs others and a web designer and that she is far more likely to keep our $$ locally than if I go to the National chain down the street.

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