Community Supported Agriculture: A Ripoff?

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So, we did it: my family—despite my reservations—finally joined a CSA. The term stands for "community supported agriculture," and it has become a standard way for advocates of local and sustainable food systems to vote with their forks. This particular organization, Farmhouse Delivery, promises to sell food "grown exclusively on local farms" and, to sweeten the deal, they even deliver the goods to your door.

Membership costs $37 a week. This price might be high by CSA standards, but my hometown of Austin, Texas, is a sprawling city and the farm-to-door service surely bumps up operating costs. In late February, for our first shipment, we got a small head of broccoli, broccoli greens, one bunch of carrots, a head of butter lettuce, two oranges, two grapefruits, four beets, two hothouse tomatoes, spinach, and shallots. Not a boatload of food, to be sure, but—with the exception of the absolutely lame tomatoes—a generally impressive sampling, especially the carrots. We ate food grown from eight farms, ranging from seven to 429 miles away, with an average of 138 miles. Not exactly neighbors, but still ...

A lot of things stood out for me about the experience, but the obvious issue was expense. There's little doubt that I could have gone to my local grocery store, which is about a mile from my house, and bought the same general items for about half the CSA price. Of course, one might point out that the labor and energy saved by the delivery brings the price points closer together. Sure. But if you think you can feed a family of four on a box of CSA grub, I'd like to know the secret. Point being, I'm going to the grocery store anyway (and on my bike at that).

True, I might be able to meet the family's food needs if I indulged in the impressive array of a la carte items offered by Farmhouse Delivery. The organization has done a remarkable job of cultivating relationships with local artisanal producers. I can choose to have delivered a range of breads, meats, cheeses, herbs, bagels, pastries, and teas in addition to my $37 bin. But it was here where the prices went from uncomfortable to eye-popping (at least for a family living in Austin). A sampling: an eight-ounce tub of goat cheese for eight dollars, a seven-dollar loaf of rye bread, four dollars for a half dozen eggs, four cinnamon rolls for $12, and a pound of goat leg cubes for $12. And even if I bought all these items I'd still have to go to the grocery store for detergent, toothpaste, toilet paper, and, I imagine, Tums.

Others might argue that what I'm paying for is taste. True for the amazing carrots. But otherwise I cannot honestly say I'd be able to identify the CSA produce in a taste test with conventional counterparts. Maybe I have a lazy palate, but to me a roasted beet is pretty much a roasted beet (for an interesting case of a taste test, click here). Plus, the tomatoes came from Village Farms and the citrus from the Gonzales Fruit Company—both large corporations that distribute to grocery chains that sell their products at lower prices.

Farmhouse Delivery has a refreshingly basic refund policy: "If you are not completely satisfied with a product, Farmhouse Delivery will refund it in full." Admirable. But I'm not ready to test their promise yet. Yes, I like the fact that two of the farms I support through the CSA are within biking distance, and yes, I much appreciated that my calls to Farmhouse Delivery were answered by a woman who was extremely helpful and friendly. But that's not why I'm leaving the bin out for more produce.

I've been critical (playfully at times) of the local food movement for years, and will surely continue to be so in the future, but something caught me off guard this time, if for no other reason than the fact that it's so obvious: when you a pay more for something you tend to ask more of it. The $37 price tag is still hard for me to stomach, but never have I worked so hard to make sure every scrap of food was cooked, eaten, and—except for those dreaded tomatoes—savored. And this can only be deemed a good thing.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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