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What Are CSA Boxes, and Are They Worth the Cost?

Someone holding a crate of produce.
Julia Sudnitskaya/Shutterstock

Given the rising popularity of grocery delivery, you might be hearing more about community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes. Not sure what they are? We’ll explain!

In some ways, CSAs are the original food subscription box. If you want fresh food, while supporting your community, they’re still one of the best options around.

How CSA Boxes Work

When you sign up for a CSA box, you sign up to have fresh, local produce (and sometimes, other products) delivered to you from local farms. Each box will be slightly different, depending on what’s in season in your area.

When you sign up for a CSA, you buy “shares” in the harvests of participating farms. When the crops are harvested, you get your shares in the form of a regularly-delivered box. Many CSA programs have weekly deliveries, but some might be biweekly or monthly.

Traditionally, CSAs require a large upfront payment to buy your shares for the quarter or year. However, there are a few programs that allow you to pay by the month or week, making it easier to get started.

Should You Get a CSA Box?

CSA boxes have lots of benefits, but they aren’t right for everyone. Here are a few questions to consider and decide if it’s right for you.

Do You Want to Support Farmers Directly?

Many people love CSAs because their money goes directly to local farmers. These programs support farms by giving them a large source of income early in the growing season, and ensuring they’ll sell their harvest.

Buying through CSAs often costs less than grocery stores in the long run, as they cut out the middleman between the farm and your table.

Can You Afford a Large Upfront Payment?

One major drawback of CSAs, though, is that they typically require a large upfront payment. Even though the overall cost usually ends up being less than shopping at a grocery store, the initial cost can keep people on tight budgets from joining.

That said, you can still check and see if any CSA programs near you offer monthly or weekly payment options. Some local programs even offer reduced-cost CSAs for people with lower incomes.

Are You Creative in the Kitchen?

CSA boxes tend to come full of surprises. While some allow you to customize your box ahead of time, the available items change with the seasons. Some CSAs also never tell you what you’re getting before your box arrives.

If you’re creative with new and unfamiliar ingredients, that’s great! However, if you’re looking for routine fare so you can plan meals, a CSA might not be right for you.

Can You Accept Unpredictability?

Sometimes, a harvest doesn’t go as planned. Pests, diseases, or weather can impact local produce and reduce your CSA produce options.

CSA programs generally try to give you a good deal, but they’re at the mercy of all the factors we mentioned above. Be prepared for possible changes or reductions in your boxes, depending on how the growing season goes.

Do You Cook a Lot?

With a CSA, you get a lot of perishable food on a regular basis. If you often go out to eat, you might not be able to use everything in your box. Some people split their CSA order with another household to ensure that nothing goes to waste.

A benefit for those who cook a lot, though, is that CSAs expose you to new ingredients. Many programs even include recipe ideas to help you learn how you can use everything. You can also pickle, can, or freeze some items to make them last.

Are You into Fresh, Organic Food?

A woman drinking fresh orange juice while leaning on a counter loaded with fresh produce.

CSAs are one of the freshest ways to buy food because everything’s grown locally. Many boxes are completely organic or have organic options. They also offer things you don’t always see in grocery stores, like heirloom tomatoes.

If eating fresh, organic, and local is important to you, these are all good reasons to go with a CSA box.

Do You Want to Reduce Food Waste?

If the produce you purchase at the grocery often goes bad before you can use it, a CSA box might help.

CSA programs reduce the time between when the food is harvested, and when it arrives at your home. While food in grocery stores might have spent weeks in transport and storage, CSA food just makes a short trip from the farm to your kitchen.

While the lack of preservatives in many CSA offerings can shorten their shelf lives, it will likely last longer than you’d expect.

Do You Want to Supplement Grocery Shopping?

CSA boxes are great for cutting back on trips to the store. Typically, however, they won’t replace grocery shopping entirely.

Some boxes offer extras in addition to produce, like milk, eggs, butter, and even locally-raised meat. Still, it’s unlikely a CSA box will provide every food item you need. If you’re looking to totally replace grocery shopping, a meal delivery box might be a better choice.

Can You Make Pickups?

Some programs deliver to your door, but many CSAs require that you pick up your box at a regular location. You’ll want to make sure you can pick up your items regularly, if necessary.

Although your food will arrive in a box, it’s often a good idea to bring reusable bags when picking up your fare—especially if you didn’t drive. A grocery bag is much easier to carry than a cardboard box full of food.

Do You Want to Get Involved with Local Farms?

Some CSA programs also host member events, like farm tours. Some even allow you to volunteer at the farm in exchange for a discount on your share.

This can be a fun way to get in touch with where your food comes from, and see where your money is going. If you like the idea of learning more about local farms, check out the member events offered by CSA programs.

If you’re not sold on CSAs yet, you might want to start with some visits to your local farmers’ market. This will give you an idea of what products are available in your area each season. Also, farms that offer CSA boxes will likely be present to answer your questions.

CSA boxes aren’t the only way to eat healthier, but they’re a popular option. As more have become available, they’ve also become more affordable and accessible than they once were. If you’re ready to give it a try, you can check the USDA’s CSA Directory to see what’s available near you!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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