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The Tip Jar: Is a CSA share cheaper for organic produce than a grocery store?

The cheapest store might surprise you...
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This year my wife and I signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share, that sees us get a selection of organic fruit and veg grown near the Twin Cities every week.

We split the $590 cost of a full-share from a Wisconsin farm with my sister-in-law. For that money we get 18 weeks of produce that changes week-to-week depending on what time of the season it is, which we get from a pick-up site.

That works out at $32.77 per week. So the Tip Jar took a look at how this compares to what you pay for organic produce in Twin Cities grocery stores.

How much we got

It's early in the growing season so our first few shares have been heavy on the leafy content. Here's a list of what we received in our Thursday, July 6, share.

  • Mixed greens 10.7 ounces
  • Bunch red kale
  • Bunch cilantro
  • Bunch salad turnips
  • Bunch radishes (12 in number)
  • Head leaf lettuce
  • Snap peas 7.7 ounces
  • Fennel bulb
  • Bunch garlic scapes
  • Bunch green onions
  • One cauliflower
  • One napa cabbage

The picture at the top of this page shows you what the list above looks like.

We get ours through Blackbrook Farm in Amery, Wisconsin, so this comparison uses only their pricing. There's a lot of variation in terms of cost and produce depending on the farm you choose, so do your research before signing up. You can find a full list of CSAs that deliver to the Twin Cities right here courtesy of the Land Stewardship Project.

Blackbrook Farms managed to send us this despite a growing season that at the beginning of June was disrupted by hailstorms, delaying the start of the share by a couple of weeks.

And it changes as the 18-week share goes on. Tomatoes, onions, peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn and garlic come in the middle of the summer, while the end of summer/start of fall brings parsnips, squashes, brussel sprouts, pie pumpkins and sweet potatoes.

This picture shows a Blackbrook Farms box from mid-August last year.

How much you get at the start of the share isn't always what you'll get for the whole 18 weeks, with Blackbrook farmer James Dodge telling Tip Jar the size of boxes grows as the farm gets to "higher value crops" later in the season.

So with a cost of $32.77 for the week, is this better value than the organic produce you find at grocery stores?

I visited seven – Hy-Vee, Lunds & Byerly, Whole Foods, Jerry's, Kowalski's, Fresh Thyme and the Linden Hills co-op – to find out.

The results

Here's how they ranked – you can see my full spreadsheet breakdown of costs here.

  1. Whole Foods – $29.12
  2. Fresh Thyme – $31.88
  3. CSA Share – $32.77 (plus salad turnips)
  4. Linden Hills Co-op – $34.00
  5. Jerry's Foods – $34.24*
  6. Hy-Vee – $35.18
  7. Lunds & Byerly – $35.99
  8. Kowalski's – $39.51

*Jerry's only had 5 of the items organic, the rest are non-organic.

A few notes:

– Walmart, Target, Aldi and Cub Foods only had a handful of the 12 organic products I was looking to compare, so they're not included.

– I couldn't find salad turnips at ANY store – so bear in mind the CSA Share total of $32.77 includes those turnips.

– The size of the "bunches" vary. In some cases what we received in the CSA share was slightly bigger than from the grocery store (we got a lot of cilantro, for example). But in other cases it's smaller (our CSA cauliflower was not big).

– As stated before, the CSA share is early in the season and the boxes will grow larger as the summer goes on (meaning, more value). I will return to do another comparison with different fruit and veg later in the summer.

The verdict

I remember when doing my initial grocery store comparison across the Twin Cities that while Whole Foods was overall the most expensive to shop, its organic produce did seem cheaper than a lot of competitors.

That seems to be borne out by these latest results, with the store by Lake Calhoun coming in a few bucks cheaper than the average cost of my CSA share. That said, this is minus the salad turnips, so if those were taken into consideration the gap would be closer.

It'll be interesting to see if Whole Foods is still cheaper when I compare one of the bigger CSA share boxes later in the summer. Dodge says his boxes have a retail value of more than $50 during the height of the season.

He estimates that over the course of the 18 weeks, his farm's boxes come in around 25 percent cheaper than retail.

It certainly was this week compared Kowalski's, which was the most expensive mainly because of its pricey, boxed snap peas and its $5.49 cauliflower.

The Linden Hills Co-op and Hy-Vee were the only places where you could pick up loose mixed salad greens, with every other store requiring you to buy a packaged salad pack (at around $5.99 for 10 ounces), and their prices were cheaper as a result.

And if you're thinking, "Oh, it's organic produce, that's too expensive," take a look at Jerry's Foods. True, it's more upmarket than places like Target and Walmart, but six out of 11 of the items I checked were not organic. Yet it came in $1.47 more expensive than the CSA share.

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