How to save money and eat healthier with a CSA

Understanding Community Supported Agriculture

by Stephanie Gallagher


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Cutting out the middleman is a classic strategy for saving money on everything from cars to jewelry. But is it possible to cut out the middleman on an everyday expense like food? Yes!

By joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, you can not only go right to the source for your food (the farmer), but you can also enjoy better-tasting and healthier foods.

You buy a share in a CSA, which is like a subscription to a magazine. Typically, you buy a share in the winter for a spring-summer season, which lasts 12-16 weeks. In some parts of the country, you can buy shares that go through the fall and even the winter.

Then each week at the beginning of the season, the farmer delivers your share (box of produce) to the farmer's market or a pre-determined location. Some farms allow you to pick up CSA shares right at the farm.

The box includes whatever the farmer harvested that week, so the produce is seasonal, fresh and, oftentimes, organic. Some CSAs offer just fruits and vegetables; others offer everything from eggs to honey, poultry, nuts, and flowers.

Now, you don't get to choose what goes into your share. So it's important to ask up front what goes into a typical share throughout the season. Remember that your share (box of produce) changes throughout the season. You might get lots of kale and asparagus in the spring, for example, while the summer brings a bounty of peaches, berries, apples and all sorts of vegetables.

Part of the fun of a CSA is being exposed to new fruits and vegetables. You aren't likely to get garlic scapes, yellow watermelon or mizzuna at your local grocer, but you are likely to get them through a CSA, because the farmer can grow what local weather and soil conditions dictate, not what mass supermarkets sell.

That's what makes CSAs so great for families. It allows you to expose kids to new fruits and vegetables in a fun and educational way. My kids had no idea how garlic grew until the farmer handed us sticks with garlic bulbs attached!

Now, there's no guarantee of what produce you'll get. Part of the philosophy behind a CSA is sharing the burden and the bounty between farmer and consumer. If poor weather conditions or crop damage threatens a harvest, your share will be lighter. Still, we've been subscribing to CSAs for three years now and have never been disappointed. However, in one very wet year, we did find ourselves light on strawberries (just one week instead of four).

Every CSA has different rules. Here are some questions to ask when choosing a CSA:

  • How much is a share?
  • What is included in a typical share in the Spring? Summer? Fall?
  • Do you offer half-shares?
  • Where and when is pick-up?
  • What if I miss a week (for vacation or just not being able to make it)?
  • When is payment due?
  • Can I choose my produce? Most CSAs won't let you pick and choose, but many offer swaps.

To find a CSA near you, check out LocalHarvest.org.


Stephanie Gallagher is the Cooking for Kids columnist on About.com. She is also a fan of garlic scapes and posts new recipes using CSA produce on her website throughout the spring and summer.

Take the Next Step:

  • Look for a CSA near you at LocalHarvest.org
  • Subscribe to Healthy Foods Ezine and each week you'll find 'Nutrition 101', an introduction to a new food, plus a recipe.
  • For more on fruits and vegetables, please click here

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