Do veggies cost more through a CSA share at my local farm or at the grocery store?

This is a common question from people considering CSA.

When I received this question, I realized I didn’t really know the answer. But I wanted to know. So I came up with a plan. And one of the first things I noticed was—

This is a tricky question to answer.

  • Are we talking about the cash value of the vegetables?
  • Or does cost also include your gas money traveling to the grocery store or farm for your veggies?
  • Is there a cost associated with experiencing a very tasty veggie vs. “cardboard” bland veggies?
  • How about the value of having a community of support from fellow farm members and the farmers themselves when it comes to storage and cooking tips?
  • What about the emotional cost of the shopping trip itself, especially when shopping with young children?
  • And these are only the costs directly tied to you, the customer. What about environmental costs due to how your veggies are grown and how far the veggies themselves have traveled to get to the grocery store?

Kind of complicated, eh? Yes. So let’s simplify. I think people are asking, How much cash am I paying for my veggies? So this past CSA season, I decided to gather some data so I could better answer this. (Full disclaimer: The information ahead doesn’t constitute a a scientific study.) 

The Set-Up:

During two weeks of the CSA–Summer Week 7 (August 19, 2019) and Fall Week 1 (Sept 30, 2019) –I called Aldi in Lowell and Whole Foods in Schererville. I went through the list of produce we had in our CSA for each of those weeks, and I asked them for their prices for that same produce. I chose Summer Week 7 because it’s one of our “fullest” weeks of the year and Fall Week 1 because it’s one of our “leanest” weeks of the year.

The Findings:

I’m going to share my findings in two different ways: 1) through story and 2) through charts with data.

Adventures in Grocery Shopping (three very short stories)

“Julie’s” Story at Whole Foods

As August in Indiana comes to an end, Julie’s squeezing in her bi-weekly trip to Whole Foods. From her hometown in DeMotte that means 56 miles round trip, but with her health issues, it’s worth it to her to get good organic produce. Where else would I find such produce in my small rural town? Julie thinks.

Julie doesn’t shop with a list–that’s not her style. She buys whatever produce is calling her name. Today that’s carrots, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, head lettuce, honeydew, lunchbox peppers, potatoes, fresh herbs, kale, a sweet red bell pepper, potatoes, slicing tomatoes, and watermelon. Yum!

Julie’s not exactly sure what she’s going to do with all this produce yet, but hopefully she’ll figure something out. She really doesn’t want to throw anything away, but this always seems to happen anyway. Either the produce goes bad or she’s just too busy to look for cooking ideas. Her friend Patty is SO much better at using up all her produce–maybe she just needs to pick her brain for some ideas. Alright, shopping’s done–yes! Now she just has to battle traffic for 45 minutes to get home.

Julie’s total money spent at Whole Foods, August 19, 2019 = $42.03

“Patty’s” Story at Aldi

Patty travels from DeMotte to Lowell for her weekly trip to Aldi (28 miles round trip). She wants organic produce, but there’s no way she’s spending the money her friend Julie does at Whole Foods. Her daughter Bekah gets her organic produce from a local farm in DeMotte, but Patty is so used to shopping at the grocery store that a new way of shopping sounds intimidating. Yeah, she might not be able to find everything organic at Aldi, but such is life. She fills her cart with cantaloupe, carrots, cherry tomatoes, head lettuce, lunchbox peppers, potatoes, fresh herbs, potatoes, slicing tomatoes, and watermelon–so much good stuff! With her years of cooking experience, she’s brimming with ideas for how cook with all this produce.

Patty’s phone dings, and up pops a picture of Bekah and her granddaughter Joy munching on kale at that farm they keep talking about. Patty smiles. Maybe she’ll join them next week and check it out …

Patty’s total money spent at Aldi, August 19, 2019 = $26.87

“Bekah’s” Story at Perkins’ Good Earth Farm CSA

Back home in DeMotte, Bekah’s finished her office work, picked up her kids from swim lessons, and has arrived at her CSA farm, about 3 miles from her home. 

As soon as she parks, her kids are off and running to join the other kids–one goes to shoot hoops while the other heads straight to the pick your own herb area (who knew her kid would love fresh mint so much???).

Bekah walks through the market style distribution line where this week’s freshly harvested and cleaned produce is laid out. She puts cantaloupe, carrots, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, head lettuce, lunchbox peppers, potatoes, fresh herbs, kale, a sweet red bell pepper, potatoes, slicing tomatoes, and watermelon into the bags she brought from home. Hold up, she’s not in the mood for eggplant this week. She checks out the Exchange Box and trades it for more lunchbox peppers–her kids can’t enough of those!

Dinner’s easy tonight, especially since her CSA farmer sent the produce list out last week, along with menu ideas. Tonight they’ll have a salad with grilled chicken and fresh tomatoes, with melon for dessert–yum!

With dinner already planned and her kids occupied in the great outdoors, Bekah sits down in the shade at the farm and takes a few minutes to just be. Her daughter joins her with a handful of kale she picked herself. Laughing, they each bite into a leaf, take a selfie, and send it to Bekah’s mom.

Bekah’s Total at Perkins’ CSA Farm (paid all the way back in January) = $15

Summary of the Data

To get the total prices “Julie” and “Patty” pay during their grocery shopping, I created charts that list the following:

  • each type of produce
  • the unit of measurement for each produce item
  • the price (adjusted for measurement type)

All prices listed are for organic produce, unless the store didn’t have an organic option, which I note in the full charts at the very end of this post.

Summary for "Fullest" Week of CSA (Sept 30, 2019): Organic Vegetable Prices

 Perkins' Good Earth Farm CSA Aldi Whole Foods  
Total Shopping Trip Cost$15 (weekly share cost for Medium Share)$26.87 $42.03
Perkins Summer CSA Medium Share - Week 7

Summer Week 7 – Medium Share

Summary for "Leanest" Week of CSA (Sept 30, 2019): Organic Vegetable Prices

 Perkins' Good Earth Farm CSA Price at Aldi Price at Whole Foods  
Total Shopping Trip Cost$15 (weekly cost for Medium Share)$20.28 $25.02
Fall CSA Week 1 Medium Share

Fall Week 1 – Medium Share

The Conclusion:

So–Do veggies cost more through a CSA share at my local farm or at the grocery store?

I think the answer is pretty clear, at least at our farm. You DO save money when you buy a CSA share over shopping for organic veggies at the grocery store! Not only that, but you also gain so much more:

  • super tasty veggies grown in super healthy soil
  • less time traveling / more time for what you want to be doing
  • good feelings by supporting the local economy 
  • more good feelings by supporting environmental health
  • set up for success with veggie storage and cooking tips
  • community support from the farmer and fellow CSA members

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments!

For you data-loving folks, check out the charts below for how I get the grocery shopping totals.

CSA vs. Grocery Store Organic Vegetable Prices (August 19, 2019)

Produce ItemUnit for CSA Medium SharePrice at AldiPrice at Whole Foods 
cantaloupe or honeydew
1 melonno organic available
1.99/conventionally grown cantaloupe
2.99/conventionally grown honeydew
3.99/cantaloupe
2.99/honeydew
carrots1 pound (16 oz)no organic available
$1.39/2 pounds (32 oz) (=$.70/pound)
1.29/pound (16 oz)
cherry tomatoeshalf pint (6 oz)
2.39/10 oz (=1.43/6 oz)
2.69/pint (12 oz) (=1.35/6 oz)
eggplant1 eggplantnot available2.49/eggplant
fresh herbs (PYO)
unit varies by herb at store (CSA member can pick as much as needed at farm)1.99 bunch of dill
2.49 bunch of mint
2.99 (3/4 oz) for each herb
Aldi only had dill and mint available
Whole Foods had a variety
green beans
1 pound (16 oz)not available3.99/pound (trimmed)
5.99/pound (French cut)
head lettuce1 small headno organic available
2.19 3-pack Romaine hearts (conventionally grown)
1.99/head
kale, full-sized (PYO)1 bunch at store (CSA member can pick as much as needed at farm)not available1.99/bunch
lunchbox peppers
1/2 pound (8 oz)
4.49/pound (16 oz) (=2.25/8 oz)4.99/pound (16 oz) (=2.50/8 oz)
potatoes2 pounds (32 oz)3.69/24 oz (=4.92/32 oz)1.49/16 oz (=2.98/32 oz)
red bell peppers1 pepper (anywhere from 1/4-1 pound, depending on size)not available3.99/pound (16 oz)
slicing tomatoes2 pounds (32 oz)no organic slicing tomatoes
organic Roma tomatoes--2.69/pound (16 oz) (=5.38/32 oz)
2.49 pound (16 oz) (=4.98/32 oz)
watermelon1 melonno organic
3.99/conventionally grown watermelon
7.99/watermelon
Total Cost$15 (weekly share cost for Medium Share)$26.87 (includes $1 each for unavailable items--eggplant, green beans, kale, red pepper--as a very conservative way to account for unavailable items / includes $2 worth of herbs / includes equivalent of one Romaine heart at $.70)42.03-44.03, depending on type of green bean you buy

CSA vs. Grocery Store Organic Vegetable Prices (Sept 30, 2019)

Produce ListUnit for Medium CSA SharePrice at AldiPrice at Whole FoodsNotes
candy carrots1 pound1.49/pound (baby carrots)1.29/pound
cilantro1 bunch0.59/bunch1.49/bunch
fresh herbs (PYO)unit varies by herb at store (CSA member can pick as much as needed at farm)1.99 (bunch of dill)
2.49 (bunch of mint)
2.99 (3/4 oz)Aldi only had dill and mint available
Whole Foods had a variety
full-sized kale (PYO)1 bunch (CSA member can pick as much as needed at farm)3.19 (12 oz bag)1.99 /bunch
green beans (PYO)unit varies at store (CSA member could pick as much as wanted this week at farm)
no organic
$1.49/pound (conventionally grown)
3.99/pound (trimmed)
5.99/pound (French cut)
head lettuce1 headno organic
2.19 3-pack Romaine hearts (conventionally grown)
1.99 head
lunchbox peppers1 pound4.49/pound4.99/pound
salad kalequarter pound (4 oz)not available3.49/5 oz bag (=2.79/4 oz)
salad spinachhalf pound (8 oz)2.69/5 oz (=$4.30/8 oz)
4.99/pound (=$2.50/8 oz)
3.99/5 oz (Organic Girl) (=6.38/ 8 oz)
4.99/10 oz (=3.99/8 oz)
Whole Foods varied by brand
sweet Hakurei turnips
1 quartnot availablenot available
Total Cost$15 (weekly share cost for Medium Share)$20.28 (includes: $1 each for unavailable items--salad kale and turnips--as a very conservative way to account for unavailable items / $2 worth of herbs / equivalent of 1 Romaine heart ($.73) )$25.02-$30.90 (depending on brand you buy) / includes $1 for sweet turnips as very conservative estimate for unavailable item)

 

2 Comments

  1. Michelle Marie McGill-Vargas on March 9, 2020 at 7:14 pm

    Great blogpost this week, Julie! Nice layout with the comparisons.

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