Have I scared you off yet? Today, we’re going to talk about a different way of doing things. But first, let’s start off with a story. This is a story about how CSA boxes have done almost everything wrong from a pricing perspective to turn me off as a buyer. And yet why do I continue to subscribe to them?
The first time I bought a CSA box, I found the deal on Groupon. It was a decent deal, 1/2 price off your first box, about $15. Not bad for a box of fresh, locally grown produce delivered to my doorstep. The morning I received my first box, I bounced around the kitchen while excitedly opening the treasure chest to discover the goodies. The experience didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed the delicious bok choi and beets for a week. I decided I'd like to get this box again.
A week later, I froze in horror in front of my computer screen. I saw a charge on my credit card for more than $300. What is that? I didn’t spend $300. Is this a fraudulent charge?
Looking closely, I noticed the charge was from Farm Fresh To You, the CSA box. Unbeknownst to me, the CSA farm indeed continued my subscription to their CSA box - which I was happy to receive. But I didn’t realize I had prepaid for an entire season of fruits and vegetables. Worse, I was on a student’s budget and hadn’t prepared for the sticker-price shock.
Sure, it was my fault for not reading the fine print. But it didn't make the pill any less bitter to swallow.
If you read my first post in this series introducing CSA farmers and boxes, you’ll know that CSAs and I have had an on-again-off-again relationship.
A month ago, I was sitting in front of my computer screen, getting mild heart palpitations. This time, it was a different CSA box to the tune of $1,241 for a 38-week subscription. I almost didn’t sign up. I almost turned that car around and said sayonara to the CSA box.
Why am I telling you this?
It’s not to brag that I pay $300 or $1000 dollars for groceries. I’m not trying to impress you with big numbers as if I spend a lot of money on food. We don’t. Alex and I are frugal people, sometimes to a fault, and we almost never eat out to save our hard-earned dollars. I’m sharing this story with you because I don’t want you to chicken out.
Because the CSA farms do things differently. And if you’re not mentally prepared for it, like I wasn’t the first time I got that giant bill on my credit card, you might end up actually turning your car around, and continuing on to the conventional grocery store.
Why do you have to prepay a large sum to subscribe to a CSA box?
No, it's not a membership fee. Farms are inherently unstable businesses thanks to Mother Nature. That’s why the U.S. government is estimated to have spent $23.9 billion on helping farmers this year, according to research from NPR, following estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.
The logic for subsidies and farm insurance was to protect farmers from the elements which could decimate their harvest and put them out of business. A CSA farm is subject to the same vulnerabilities and weather conditions.
"Community-supported agriculture started on the East Coast” where winter brought frost and cold, Aurora Wilson told me when we spoke on the phone. She’s the co-owner of the Greenhearts Family Farm. "The original idea is that members would buy into a CSA during the winter when it was colder and it was harder to farm.”
As a way to mitigate the financial hardship that nature can unleash on farming, CSA farms like to get a prepayment so they can use the money to cover their costs even if the season is not doing well.
"In winter, things grow slower and fewer things grow. Even though it doesn't snow [on the West Coast], we still have to pay for land, electricity, and employees even though you don't have as much stuff growing. So, it's a way to buy a share to help the farm and invest in the farm. Come spring and summer, you get the rewards.”
That’s good for the farm. But does it make my grocery bill more expensive?
Last night, I ran some numbers so I could share with you the impact my CSA box subscriptions have had on my budget. As I did my calculations, I thought, "Hmmm, that is really surprising."
Before we subscribed to CSA boxes, we were buying groceries at Costco. We bought large boxes of peaches and apples as well as jumbo bags of lettuce and mixed frozen vegetables. On average, we spent $848.09 per month at Costco, including non-food items like shampoo and paper towels. Last month, when we subscribed to 3.5 CSA boxes (more on that in a future article), we spent $830 on groceries, including non-food items.
I was surprised because the numbers were so close. I assumed that the CSA box would be 10% more expensive, which would come out to an $84 difference. After all, I’m getting freshly picked, local, and sustainably grown fruits and vegetables that taste so much better. Add in organics and the rest of that mumbo jumbo. Yet, they were the same price.
Side Note: I’ll continue to monitor my budget and add an update if the CSA boxes appear to increase my spending on food much more.
Not only is it the same expense, but also because of the huge variety we get and how perishable the food is, we’ve discovered we pine for takeout food and eat prepared frozen meals much less because there’s always something new and interesting to try. In the past, we often got bored with Costco and Trader Joes frozen foods after a few months and felt tempted to eat out more to satisfy our cravings for novelty.
If you still don’t believe me, even Mr. Money Mustache advocates CSAs in his post about killing your $1000 grocery bill as a way to both get a good deal and support community businesses. If even MMM supports it, it’s a frugal option.
It’s uncomfortable because it’s different.
The funny thing is, even though I intellectually know CSA boxes don't break the bank, why do I still get heart palpitations when I look at my CSA bills?
After overanalyzing this, I'm concluding that I’m simply not used to prepaying for food two or three times a year instead of every week. I’m used to grocery stores where I pay for exactly what gets ringed up, weekly.
It's bizarre because I prepay for a lot of things like movies, my gym membership, and rent. For example, I’m not allowed to tell the usher, “I don’t have a ticket. Let me pay after I’ve watched the movie, if you don't mind."
There's something else too. It’s the commitment.
When I sign up for a 38-week subscription, I don’t get to cancel next week if I don’t feel like receiving the boxes anymore.
And that’s the point.
Farmers want security. The CSA box subscription is one way to increase their financial stability.
Yet, as a Millennial, this over commitment doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve been trained these days to purchase subscription software on a monthly basis and cancel at any time without penalties. Yet, you, CSA box, are asking me to fork over more than 15% of my entire grocery budget in one go for the chance to get a box of delicious fresh fruits and veggies. Urgh, it's a psychological dilemma.
And what about people living paycheck to paycheck?
Luckily there are some options. If it really bothers you to pay the lump sum or if you can’t afford to and would still like to get the benefits of a CSA box, there are alternatives.
Visit a farmer’s market
The same CSA farmers who offer a CSA box are usually at the local farmers market selling the same produce. In fact, the farmers market is a common pickup location for farms that don’t do doorstep delivery.
Find a CSA farm that offers a one-time or week-by-week subscription
Greenhearts Family Farms offers a one-time order of their CSA box. In fact, I started with this farm ordering one-off boxes to test the produce and service. It helped reduce my anxiety about coughing up the $1,241 for the seasonal box.
Aurora told me, "We also offer the week-to-week box because not everyone can afford to buy a share. We don't want to exclude anyone.”
Eat With The Seasons is another CSA subscription service I use that offers an “on-demand” option where they allow you to buy à la carte items each week and pay per item.
While it’s a big lump of money to subscribe to a CSA box, the commitment I sign up for is important. I recognize it's part of the deal. Surprisingly, it isn't costing me more either. And it helps the farmers significantly to have the income they can rely on to run their business. So, the main issue I need (and still do) to overcome is my discomfort of shelling out a chunk of cash and going through a different process than I’m used to.
And I’m happy to report, so far, I love how these subscriptions are “set it and forget it.” I don’t have to worry about bringing enough cash to the farmers market or whether I should buy the pomegranates this week because they’re pricey. I choose them and they show up in my treasure chest, waiting for me to enjoy.