Some Thoughts on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Shares and How to Maximize Their Value

At the start of this year, Sarah and I decided to sign up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) group in our area. We ended up selecting Heritage Hill Farms, because they offered deliveries and pick-ups that were convenient for us and our normal weekly routines.

Every CSA program is a bit different, but they all generally have a few things in common.

First, consumers buy memberships in CSAs called “shares.” A “share” usually provides a weekly basket of vegetables and other foods (and sometimes other items) that are in season, as the farmer running the CSA will usually do a picking for the express purpose of filling CSA baskets for the week.

A CSA will usually advertise locally when they have shares available for the coming year during the fall and winter months. I discovered our CSA through a local grocery store that actually hosted a “CSA fair” last winter. You can usually find them through Google searches or by paying attention to bulletin boards at grocery stores and the like.

A “share” basket usually contains a significant quantity of food for the week. The farmer in charge of the CSA can give you some guidance on what to expect, but the quantity of the food does vary depending on the quality of the growing season as well as the time of year and their growing schedule. My experience with this CSA and with similar experiences in the past is that the food they provide is usually in line with what they suggest.

Typically, you pick up your basket once a week at a local meeting point or a farmers market. Some CSAs do offer a delivery service to your front step but that usually requires an additional fee.

The produce is usually high quality and, depending on the CSA, is often organic certified. None of the CSAs I have been familiar with have ever offered baskets of low-quality food. The stuff in there, while sometimes unusual, is always high quality stuff. Most CSAs, at least in our area, are either already organic certified or well on their way to certification. Many CSAs also grow some heirloom crops, too.

The amount of food that you get from a share is a nice bargain compared to buying similar amounts in the store. This is true for our CSA as well as others that I have observed. If you stack up all of the food that you get over the course of a year, it ends up being less expensive than buying that food at the grocery store (provided that you can even find it at the grocery store).

However, you don’t get a choice as to what’s in the basket each week. You get some of whatever happens to be in season. If you’re picky about your vegetables, you might find that some of the CSA stuff goes to waste. On the other hand, if you’re willing to work with what you have, it can be interesting and end up being quite a bargain.

So, let’s talk about our lessons from our CSA experience, particularly in terms of maximizing the value.

Lesson One: Unless You’re Eating a Freshly-Made Vegetable-Oriented Dish Every Night, You’re Going to Have Extras

I eat vegetarian. Sarah nearly does as well. Our children often have vegetarian meals, though they eat a more varied diet. We cook meals at home the vast majority of the time. Even then, we still had an abundance of food coming in from the CSA. We actually couldn’t eat everything in the basket before the next basket arrived.

This is a common experience with busy people who get into CSA programs. These programs can dump a lot of vegetables and other items into your hands and unless you’re careful with what you’re doing, some of it is going to go to waste.

You need to be prepared for this if you sign up for a CSA, period. They provide tremendous value, but it can feel like the equivalent of buying a bunch of fresh foods in bulk. If you don’t use them effectively, they will go bad, and when that happens, you’re losing some of the value of your CSA. If this happens too frequently, then the cost-effectiveness of the CSA completely vanishes and it ends up being more expensive than just buying produce at the store.

Lesson Two: We Found Great Value in Reorienting Our Meal Planning Around CSA Day

After the first few weeks, we were struggling with the sheer number of fresh vegetables. Not only were we getting the CSA share, we were getting early fresh items from our own garden (like asparagus, which typically comes in April), and so we were suddenly flooded with a lot of vegetables. We weren’t ready.

The first thing we figured out – and this was absolutely key – was to base our meal plans around our CSA share. We moved to doing our meal planning right after getting our CSA share for the week: We would figure out what was in the share and what was coming in from our garden, come up with a meal plan that utilized that stuff as well as a few additional items that were on sale at the grocery store, and then do our grocery shopping the next day after the CSA arrived.

This allowed us to start using the fresh produce the very next day after it arrived in our home. We also had a plan for using a lot of it over the next week.

Lesson Three: Unceremoniously Presenting Varied Dishes to Our Children Led to Them Trying Lots of New Things

One of the challenges of a CSA share is that you really have no control over what is specifically in the share. You might get beets. You might get kohlrabi. You might get sweet potatoes. You might get practically anything that could grow in your area.

We have young children, and young children are notoriously picky eaters. Having such a varied vegetable diet is pretty much a recipe for some negative responses, right?

Our solution is to simply prepare meals using this stuff, put it on the table, and make it very clear that this is our supper, like it or not. The only requirement we make of our children is that they try one bite of everything and decide for themselves if it’s tasty – we don’t force them to eat a thing and we don’t make it into a big battle.

Surprisingly, they are very willing to try all kinds of things, and they’ve discovered an enjoyment for some foods that you’d be shocked that a little kid would like. Have you ever heard of a five-year-old requesting more kale? It happened, and the reason for that was that we simply prepared what we had, didn’t give them the option of having more kid-friendly foods, but also didn’t force them to eat everything on their plate but merely try each item.

Lesson Four: We Also Found Great Value in Planning Make-Ahead Meals Out of Our CSA Bounty

Even with a meal plan that was oriented around our CSA share and our garden, we would still sometimes find ourselves with plenty of extras. For example, one week we found ourselves utterly drowning in bell peppers of different colors, and we went through a period in early August where we had more tomatoes than we possibly knew what to do with.

Again, after a while, we figured out a great solution. On various Sundays, we prepared a bunch of frozen meals along with our regular meals for the week. We would take our abundance of onions and tomatoes and bell peppers and cook them to make a great sauce for several pans of lasagna, eating one that night and freezing the rest. We took a bunch of extra vegetables from the CSA and made multiple batches of mulligatawny (which I call “mulligan stew”), freezing the extra batches in freezer containers for future use.

We have a bunch of make-ahead meals sitting in our freezer right now that were built on the back of CSA vegetables throughout the past summer. It’s going to be wonderful to have these dishes throughout the fall and early winter months.

Lesson Five: Having a Vacation Arrangement with a Friend Helped Us Both Greatly

During the summer, we were traveling a few times when our CSA was ready, so that meant that some of the vegetables would completely go to waste.

Again, we found a way to solve that problem. We found a friend who picked up our shares for a couple of weeks and, in exchange, we picked up their shares for a couple of weeks, as they were in a different CSA.

All you need to do is find a friend who is in a CSA program and agree to pick up each other’s shares while that person is traveling. This way, shares don’t go to waste. It will mean that you will have a few weeks of incredible abundance of vegetables, which is a great week to make a few make-ahead meals.

If you worry that a full CSA share would yield too much produce for your family to use, you could take this one step farther and split an entire season’s share — both the cost and the bounty — with a neighbor or nearby friend.

Final Thoughts

In terms of the cost of the vegetables over the course of the year, our CSA was a pretty good bargain. It provided us with a great quantity and variety of vegetables, even if we didn’t really have any control over what we received. Of course, with such a flood entering our home, we had to have a plan or else vegetables would be wasted, undoing the value of the CSA entirely.

In the end, that’s my recommendation to you. Have a plan that you can actually pull off for handling a flood of vegetables into your home. If you don’t have a plan you can pull off, at least some of your CSA share is going to go to waste, and if that’s the case, then you’re probably going to be better off not joining a CSA as the cost per pound of vegetables is going up for you due to the waste.

CSAs are absolutely wonderful, but only if you have a plan for the produce.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.