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Save cash and eat well: Buy into a farm

Eating healthy doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, it can also be fun and educational.

Everyone knows eating more fruits and vegetables is good for you -- the new Department of Agriculture, or USDA, food pyramid encourages it more than ever before -- but paying for all that produce can be costly.

Government studies show a family of four typically spends more than $850 on fruits and vegetables annually. And if you're trying to meet USDA nutrition guidelines or are buying organic, that number is likely to be much higher.

What's a shopper to do? After all, there aren't many places to buy produce -- either at the local supermarket or take a short drive to a farmer's market, right? Actually, however, there is a third -- and usually less-expensive -- option: a nearby community-supported agriculture, or CSA, farm.

CSA farms sell "shares" of the crop -- anywhere from six to more than 1,000 shares per farm -- which entitle you to an agreed-upon amount of whatever the farm produces through the growing season. It also gives the small farmer operating capital for the year's production. Every week during the growing season, typically 15 to 30 weeks, depending on the location, members receive a box or basket filled with the week's harvest of fruits and vegetables. The weekly share may also include items such as flowers, milk, eggs, honey and herbs.

Prices vary significantly. Starting at $300 per share and topping out at more than $1,000, the fee is usually paid in advance of the growing season. Each share is typically enough to feed a family of four, though half shares are sometimes available. Each farm has different options, so you'll want to check to make sure the food you get will be enough -- and not too much. Some offer different prices depending on whether the produce is delivered to your home, picked up at a central location or picked up at the farm itself. Some CSA farmers offer monthly payments.

Because of the different foods available at different points in the season, the actual amount of food will vary but can range from as little as five pounds a week, when greens are in season, to well over 20 pounds, when tomatoes and potatoes are harvested.

As an example, here's what Green Cay Produce in Boynton Beach, Fla., might include in a typical weekly box to shareholders during the winter:

Large box Small box
4 pounds tomatoes 2 pounds tomatoes
2 peppers 4 ounces mesclun mix
2 pounds summer squash 1 cucumber
2 cucumbers 1 head of broccoli
1 head of broccoli 1 pepper
8 ounces mesclun mix 4 ears of corn
bunch of chard 1 pound summer squash
bunch of radishes bunch of herbs (monthly)
6 ears of corn  
bunch of herbs (monthly)  

CSAs tend to be a bargain for what you're getting, says Dan Lass, a professor of resource economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "We've collected careful data comparing a share from a CSA to the same amount and type of produce purchased from a supermarket," he says. "There can be a substantial monetary benefit -- from $200 to more than $400."

The food is also very fresh -- often harvested the day that members pick it up -- and usually is grown organically. The average U.S. food item travels some 1,500 miles from the farm to your house, losing significant nutritional value along the way. What's more, it takes 40 times the amount of energy to produce a calorie of packaged food as a calorie of fresh local produce.

Next: "It's also an investment in your health."
Page | 1 | 2 | 3 |
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