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Community supported agriculture, or CSA for short, is a way to buy groceries from local farmers. With food at home prices spiking 10.8% over the past 12 months according to the U.S. government's April 2022 consumer price index, any way to save some money on groceries is welcome for consumers. But can paying into a CSA actually save you?
A CSA may help you save on groceries due to a locked-in price for the season that you pay upfront, fresher fruit and vegetables that won't go bad as quickly, and a lack of supply chain issues that could drive prices up unexpectedly.
What Is a CSA?
CSAs—also known as farm shares—are a way to purchase fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy, honey and more directly from local farmers. Depending on the local climate, CSA purchase agreements may last for a few months, the full growing season or all year.
CSAs may operate under different sales models, but many depend on upfront payment at the beginning of the season. This money funds the farmers' work. Buyers then receive regular distributions of fruits and veggies, often on a weekly basis throughout the season.
What Are the Pros and Cons of a CSA?
Fresh fruits and veggies all summer sounds great, but like many food supply options, there are pros and cons to CSAs. Buyers should consider:
- The price is locked in for the season, which could insulate buyers from inflation-related increases.
- Fresh fruit and vegetables may last longer than store-bought produce, which must be shipped from where it was grown.
- Because food comes from local farms, there is less chance of supply chain disruption or sudden inflation.
- You may receive more produce than expected, especially in high-yield years
- You must pay for several months of food upfront.
- You may not get much control over what produce you get, which could lead to food waste if you're trying to cook something you're unfamiliar with.
- If there is a crop failure at a particular CSA, you may lose out on what you paid.
How Much Does a CSA Cost Compared With Groceries?
Generally, prices may range from $300 to $1,000 a year for a CSA membership, though there is no standardized pricing for CSA produce. Prices are tied to the length of the growing season, the types of produce provided and the cost of farmland and labor. Weekly shares typically provide around 10 pounds of produce—though you could receive significantly more or less depending on whether it's early or late in the season.
CSAs are often offered in different share sizes, meaning two people buying into the same CSA may pay different amounts. Some also include more expensive items, such as fresh milk or grass-fed beef, which could impact costs. That said, depending on the length of a given CSA season and your commitment to using all the items you receive, you could save on grocery costs by purchasing from a CSA.
Some CSAs also permit a work-for-share option wherein shoppers can volunteer farm labor to earn their weekly food. Other CSAs may offer scholarships or accept food assistance payments such as EBT.
Other Ways to Save on Groceries
Even if you don't have access to a CSA or aren't prepared to buy a whole season's worth of food all at once, there are ways to cut your grocery costs. Trying out one or two of the tips, or even combining a few, can help you handle food inflation.
- Use coupons. Coupons that arrive in weekly paper circulars often have deals for a percentage off items or "buy one, get one" specials. Plus, couponing has gotten a lot easier. Digital couponing apps such as Ibotta or Rakuten can help consumers save a chunk of change on groceries.
- Budget carefully. Setting a budget for your grocery spending might be the easiest way to reign in spending. Get creative by purchasing different, more cost-effective items such as a large canister of oatmeal for several weeks' worth of breakfast instead of pricey bakery-fresh bagels.
- Switch stores. If you have several grocery stores nearby, consider switching your weekly shop to a less-expensive store. Some chains are able to reduce prices by cutting their overhead costs and only opening for part of the day.
- Opt for store brands. Store brand items are almost always less expensive than brand name items.
- Shop in bulk. For grocery items that you use a lot of quickly, shopping in bulk may be beneficial. Cereals, rice, frozen meat and more may be available at membership warehouses or food co-ops for much less than buying in small sizes at the local market.
- Eat more plant-based foods. With meat costs on the rise, swapping to more plant-based meals may help fight inflation at the grocery store.
- Try gardening to supplement. Create your own CSA by snagging some seeds or starter plants for easy-to-grow foods like tomatoes, peas, lettuce and potatoes.
- Use a credit card with cashback for groceries. Some credit cards with special categories for groceries can help you earn as much as 6% back when you swipe at the supermarket.
Inflation can feel like it's eating up your food budget, but contributing to a CSA could save you money and give you the satisfaction of knowing you're supporting local farmers. That combined with a few swaps and strategic shopping can help you bring down food prices to something more palatable.