Being a savvy consumer can mean a lot of things. It can refer to a person who knows how to get the lowest price on whatever he or she is buying. It can also mean finding the best value — the highest quality product — for the most reasonable price. Or it can refer to someone who shops ethically, according to his or her values.
However you define “savvy consumer,” becoming one requires research and education about the products that you buy according to your individual priorities. When it comes to shopping for food, today’s savvy consumers know where their food comes from, and, if they do things right, they save money, too.
While stories of contaminated goods permeate the news, the locally grown food movement has been gaining momentum. At the same time, the high cost of food is challenging all of us to find new ways to cut costs without sacrificing healthy eating.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are popping up all over the country. Through a CSA, consumers can choose to buy shares in a local farm and then receive portions of the farm’s produce once it is harvested. In some areas, CSAs have become so popular that there are waiting lists to join.
Food tastes better when it has not been genetically altered, harvested prematurely and infused with chemicals to be able to withstand a 1,000-mile (or longer) journey from the farm to your table. Members of CSAs tend to eat seasonally. And they eat very fresh produce, which has been proven to be much more nutritious.
How it Works
Members of CSAs pay dues, which buy shares of a farm. These dues go directly to pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment and labor. Then, the harvest is divided between shareholders. Cost to produce can vary widely from one CSA to another, depending on regional location and other factors.
Cost Versus Benefit
Undoubtedly, it is cheaper to grow your own fruits and vegetables than to buy them at the grocery store. For example, one expert estimates that it costs about $3 for a tomato transplant that will produce up to 25 pounds of the summertime fruit favorite.
It doesn’t get more local than growing produce in your backyard, but not everyone has the skills, expertise or resources to start a farm out back. Home gardening is not the only option for someone who wants to reap the benefits of eating locally produced food. Participating in a CSA can be a great solution.
By joining a CSA, you may not get a better price dollar for dollar, but it will undoubtedly prompt you to cook more often. Members tend to eat at home more because they are getting boxes of delicious fresh produce every week.
Another benefit of the CSA program is that by supporting local agriculture, consumers support their own community. During a time of economic hardship, where consumers choose to spend their money can make a huge impact, either positively or negatively.
Find a CSA in Your Area
The federal government recently reported that there are 12,617 farms participating in CSAs in the U.S. The Local Harvest organization has undertaken the massive project of maintaining a database of all of them.
Keep in mind that community agriculture programs are grassroots entities, so each one is entirely unique.
To get started, go to LocalHarvest.org. Search their network by typing in your zip code. An Internet search may turn up more results, but don’t give up if the Internet doesn’t yield anything promising.
Go to your local farmers’ market and take note of the names of the farms that attend. Talk to their representatives (the farmer is likely to be right there sitting at the table). Sample their produce, and form relationships with the farmers you like. Get their contact information.
It is important to know that with a CSA membership comes the “shared risk” that farmers face every year. If, say, a hailstorm comes and wipes out all the peppers, there will be no peppers in your box that season.
Before you Join
Learn all you can about the CSA before you join. Find out exactly what produce you can expect in your box and when. Find out, also, what happens if you are unhappy with the produce after you join. If you pay month-to-month, make sure you can cancel easily. If you pay a one-time annual membership fee, find out if it is refundable.
Thoughts to Ponder
Are you now, or have you ever been, part of a CSA? Do you grow your own food? Would you encourage others to get involved in gardening and or a local CSA?
This article was contributed by Mary Hunt.