The Price of Produce: A Home Economics Experiment

How much more am I paying for organic produce delivery?

The idea of receiving a box of fresh, local, organic produce through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program has appealed to me since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. Of course, CSA has been around for several decades, but the rise of the locavore movement and the growth of produce box subscription services have increased the popularity and accessibility of CSA programs in the past few years. I tend to be a slow adopter, so it’s no surprise that I arrived a little late (okay, a lot late) to the produce box party.

One of my major reservations about subscribing to an organic produce delivery service was the cost. Organic produce is expensive, and having it delivered is, presumably, even more expensive. Yet, the idea of supporting local farms and, more selfishly, receiving a “surprise” box of high-quality produce was an intriguing notion that challenged my frugal tendencies. I finally gave in and subscribed to Farm Fresh to You, a large CSA subscription service based in California’s Capay Valley, a couple of months ago. Conservatively, I selected the small box of mixed fruits and vegetables to be delivered every other week at a cost of $25 per box. Here is a typical box:

Things started off well. I anticipated each delivery with giddy enthusiasm, and I was impressed with the delivery service and the overall quality of the produce. Furthermore, I was inspired to try new recipes using new-to-me items such as bok choy and broccoli rabe. However, as the honeymoon period wore off and I began noticing a few not-so-nice produce items (e.g., rotten tomatoes and shriveled corn in the last box), I decided to take a sober look at my various produce purchasing options. Was it worth it to continue with the produce delivery service? How much of a premium was I paying for organic produce and the delivery thereof?

I am fortunate to have a number of grocery options in my area. For this experiment, I braved the hordes of fanatical foodies at my local farmers’ market, I survived the snootiness of Whole Foods, and I even scavenged the shelves of Safeway with the goal of becoming a savvy produce consumer.

The Experiment

My field of science involves a lot of work at the lab bench, so I was excited for this opportunity to conduct fieldwork. For this experiment, I researched the price of each of the items I received in my July 3, 2012 produce box at various local grocery establishments. I also took note of whether the item was organic and assigned it a quality score (1 = poor; 2 = average; 3 = good). To be clear, I didn’t purchase these items, so my quality scores are based on visual inspection and any other reasonable tests (such as touch and smell) that I could do in the store without attracting too much attention. To ensure a fair comparison, all of my price data were collected on the same day (July 8, 2012).

Farm Fresh to You (FFTY) Small Produce Box ($25.00)

Let’s begin by taking stock of the contents in the produce box delivered to my doorstep on July 3, 2012. As you can see, the box included a pretty nice spread of summer produce.

FFTY claims to deliver 100% organic produce. Generally, the quality of the produce has been good. I thought the plums in this box were particularly delicious. However, I was disappointed with the quality of the tomatoes and corn. There was a big rotten spot on one of the tomatoes (artfully hidden in the photo), and it tasted mealy. The other two rotted after one day. The corn was a disgrace. One ear looked okay but wasn’t very sweet. The second ear was rotten at the top, and the third ear was shriveled and inedible. So, while the quality of the produce I’ve received from FFTY has been generally good, this box earned a cumulative quality score of 20 out of 24.

Farmers’ Market ($17.20)

I am quite fortunate to live within walking distance of a farmers’ market. Since it tends to adhere to an ethos similar to that of community-supported agriculture, I consider the farmers’ market my best alternative to the FFTY produce box.

The farmers’ market offers a bounty of seasonal produce, so it was not difficult to find all of the items in my produce box. Everything was organic with the exception of the plums and cherries, which were marked as “pesticide free.” I basically count that as organic; it’s just that the farm is not certified organic. Furthermore, the quality of the produce was superb (24 out of 24). I broke the rules and bought myself three ears of corn, which were delicious. The total cost of the produce box items from the farmers’ market ($17.20) was not a big surprise to me. I figured it would be expensive but cheaper than FFTY, which presumably works a delivery fee into the total cost.

Whole Foods ($20.58)

I don’t tend to do the majority of my grocery shopping at Whole Foods, primarily for budgetary reasons. As you can see from the total cost of the produce box items at Whole Foods ($20.58), there’s some truth to the joke that the store should actually be called “Whole Paycheck.” Nevertheless, the hefty price tag gets you some really high-quality produce (quality score of 24 out of 24). Interestingly, not everything was organic – only 75% of the items. Nevertheless, with their bountiful offerings of beautiful organic produce, Whole Foods is a good alternative to a farmers’ market and is generally more accessible. And it’s still cheaper than the produce box (but not delivered to your doorstep, of course).

Sprouts Farmers Market ($8.95)

I discovered Sprouts (formerly called Henry’s Market) last year while living in San Diego and was pleased to find them in the Bay Area as well. Although it’s definitely more of a grocery store than a farmers’ market, the store layout puts a major emphasis on produce, which fills the entire center of the store rather than being marginalized to a sliver on the side. As such, Sprouts can buy seasonal produce items in bulk and pass the savings on to the customer ($8.95 for the produce box items).  (You can see below that half of the items were on sale.) Of course, the compromise is that they don’t specialize in organic produce (0% organic items), and they don’t carry some of the fancier items, such as heirloom tomatoes. In any case, the overall quality was pretty good (quality score of 21 out of 24 – slightly better than the FFTY produce box).

Safeway ($14.31)

I tend to turn up my nose at the idea of Safeway produce, but as an exercise in open-mindedness, I decided to take a look. Not everyone is blessed with a wealth of produce options in their area, and produce purchasing is part of many people’s one-stop shopping at a store like Safeway. The produce box items totaled $14.31 at Safeway, and nothing was organic. Quality varied among the items, resulting in an overall quality score of 16 out of 24. Some items looked perfectly respectable (including the lettuce, cucumbers, and potatoes), while others (such as the squishy, rotten tomatoes) were downright disgusting.

Trader Joe’s ($15.27)

Admittedly, I wasn’t planning to include Trader Joe’s in my research, but I got a little carried away. Compared to the other establishments I visited, Trader Joe’s is a bit of an oddball. Their produce selection is quite limited, so I had to make some substitutions for my data collection. For example, the only kind of cucumbers they had were Persian, and the lettuce came prewashed in a bag. For several of the items, they had both organic and non-organic options. In those cases, I chose the organic option, which was actually cheaper than the non-organic option in two cases (potatoes and onions). Furthermore, this was an entirely fictitious purchase because I wouldn’t have been able to buy the desired quantities (e.g., cherries were sold in a 3 lb box for $6.99). In the end, the produce box items from Trader Joe’s were 63% organic and totaled $15.27 with a quality score of 20 out of 24.

Summary and Analysis

The bar graph below summarizes the individual and cumulative costs of the produce box items at each grocery establishment.

Below, the data are presented in a table. We can calculate the difference between the highest price (in red) and the lowest price (in gray) for each item to see how much of a savings can be achieved by shopping around. For example, the biggest price difference was in the tomatoes ($3.50 difference), while the corn was similarly priced everywhere ($0.51 difference). Factoring in cost and quality, the best organic option was the farmers’ market, while the best non-organic option was Sprouts.

My original question was how much of a premium I’m paying for the delivery of organic produce. We can use the data in the table above to estimate the extra price I am paying for (1) organic produce versus non-organic and (2) the delivery of said organic produce. (Note that this analysis is purely hypothetical and is based on the assumption that the produce from the FFTY box and the farmers’ market are equivalent in value.)

  • The extra cost of organic produce: [Best organic option (Farmers’ market): $17.20] – [Best non-organic option (Sprouts): $8.95] = $8.25 extra for organic (Put another way, the organic produce was almost twice as expensive as non-organic produce.)
  • The extra cost for delivery of organic produce: [FFTY produce box: $25.00] – [Farmers’ market produce: $17.20] = $7.80 extra for delivery
  • In summary, we can separate the $25 cost of the FFTY produce box into three components: Base produce cost ($8.95) + Organic fee ($8.25) + Delivery fee ($7.80) = $25.00

Of course, this analysis is based on just one produce box, and boxes will vary week by week. However, I would argue that summer produce probably costs more than winter produce, so the $25 may be even less of a value in the winter.

Should I continue paying a premium for my organic produce box?

I’m currently on the fence about whether to continue my produce box subscription. I have enjoyed learning about and experimenting with new-to-me produce, and it’s less likely I would be so adventurous if it weren’t for the “surprise” produce box. At the same time, I’m paying a lot for a CSA subscription service compared to other high-quality produce options in my area. A reasonable solution would be to continue supporting local farms by purchasing produce from the farmers’ market, while supplementing with some cheaper items from Sprouts. But where’s the surprise in that?

In closing:

  • Small organic produce box delivered every other week for a year – $600
  • The same produce items purchased from the local farmers’ market for a year – about $400
  • The same produce items (but not organic) purchased from Sprouts for a year – about $200
  • Attempting to cook something with bok choy and giggling uncontrollably while taking a picture of the failed results in the trash canPriceless

6 thoughts on “The Price of Produce: A Home Economics Experiment

  1. We used CSAs for about 2 years (3 different CSAs in total). We eventually became frustrated by a combination of quality (I find farms who specialize in a few crops, produce better quality than farms who produce a lot of crops. Riverdog and Full Belly approach the quality of specialists, but their tomatos and stone fruit can’t touch specialist farms.), lack of choice (oh no 4 bunches of kale again), and slightly higher. We’ve been pretty happy the past year buying 80-90% of our produce at farmer’s markets.

    • I’m definitely leaning toward the farmers’ market option, especially since the nearby one in Mountain View is so good. We Bay Area residents are pretty lucky to have so many great produce options.

  2. If you want variety/surprise from the farmers market why not have Bill shop for you. Better still just buy whatever they are cooking on chopped that particular week.

    • Bill and I had a discussion along those lines this evening. We were thinking of having lists of seasonal produce and using a random number generator to assign us produce to buy from the farmers’ market. If I go with your Chopped idea, I’ll have to buy stuff like Froot Loops and gummy bears.

  3. Jamie,
    You have found your second career. I am VERY impressed. The potato-garlic combination is one I plan to try this week. Also, the heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market look scrumptious.
    I also want a photo of you two biting into the onions “like an apple.” Looking forward to following your culinary adventures–and Bill’s ratings of same.

    • Thanks for visiting my blog, Mary! I’m having a lot of fun with it. Bill is being a very good sport with all of my cooking experiments. However, I’m not sure if he would be willing to eat an onion like an apple. 🙂

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