Sunday, September 6, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 27: Joining a Meat CSA

Once again, I've allowed myself to fall behind on the Bankrate Weekly Savings Challenges. In fact, after making it through about half of the one-year series, I was thinking of packing it in completely, for three reasons:
  1. I'm now working more or less full-time, which gives me less time to update the blog. If I'm only going to post once or twice a week, I'd like to spend those posts talking about my own ecofrugal discoveries rather than responding to Bankrate's challenges, which are often irrelevant to my life.
  2. For several weeks, the main challenge page on Bankrate was not working properly in either Google Chrome or Firefox. You could view the list of weekly challenges, but there was no way to click on them and pull up the page for each individual challenge. However, after several complaints in the comment section and a note to Bankrate tech support, that seems to be fixed now.
  3. Most problematically, the last couple of challenges have provided me with no new material to write about. Week 25 was about saving money on razors and shaving supplies, a topic I already covered pretty thoroughly back in Week 7; Week 26 was about saving money by doing your own pool maintenance, a subject that never has had, and I'm pretty sure never will have, any relevance to my life whatsoever. 
However, this week's challenge actually sounded new and potentially useful. It's about joining a "meat CSA"—that is, buying your meat directly from the farmer through a yearly subscription plan. And since I only buy free-range meats, which are a lot pricier than the factory-farmed kind, this seems like an idea that might actually offer some real savings for me. So now, instead of dropping the Savings Challenge posts completely, my plan is to keep writing about the challenges that are actually relevant for me and skip over the rest.

And this challenge certainly does sound relevant. Bankrate reporter Laura Dunn, who says she'd never actually heard of a CSA before she began working on this story, says they're a good idea if you "value knowing the original source of your meat" or "like supporting local agriculture and small farms"—both descriptions that definitely apply to me, and to some extent to Brian as well.

The farmer she interviews in the article, Jessica Jens of Windswept Farmstead in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, says it's "quite honestly, impossible for small farms to ever compete with the 99-cents-a-pound Thanksgiving turkey" available at major supermarkets. (Actually, based on my research on the price of a Thanksgiving dinner four years ago, most stores offer sale prices even lower than that.) However, by selling directly to consumers through a CSA, they can offer a better price than than the supermarkets charge for meat that's humanely raised.

But how much better is it, exactly? Well, Bankrate employee Maria Mancini says she and her husband spent $410 a month, or about $95 a week, for an "omnivore CSA" that provides them with meat, produce, seafood, and eggs. Compared to the $100 a week they used to spend on groceries, they're saving around $5 a week (though Dunn says this is only a savings of $60 a year, suggesting that the CSA only runs for a period of 12 weeks every year). This is a small savings for the Mancinis, but it would be no savings at all for us, as we currently spend only $264 per month on groceries (and that's for everything, not just the fresh produce).

Another problem: with a CSA, you don't get to choose what food you receive every week. A blogger quoted in the article says that her Iowa CSA provides meat at $1 to $2 less per pound than meat that's "hormone-free and grass fed" at the grocery store, but she also says that throughout the year, they get an assortment of cuts of beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. Now, I've never much cared for beef, and I positively dislike lamb—so $1 to $2 less per pound is no bargain for something I wouldn't really want to buy in the first place. Prices for this kind of meat in the store, at least in our area, start at around $7 a pound—so with the CSA, I'd be paying $5 to $6 per pound for meat I wouldn't actually enjoy eating.

A final problem is that CSAs that provide meat aren't exactly easy to find. Dunn says she was unable to locate one in her area, though she did find a "buying club" with meat shares that can be purchased at lower-than-retail prices (though actually, the prices looked pretty comparable to what you pay in stores around here, and you have to buy anywhere from 8 to 40 pounds at a time to get them). When I checked the Jersey Fresh website for CSAs in my area, I found none that include meats or eggs in either Middlesex County or adjacent Mercer and Monmouth Counties. I found one farm in Somerset County, Dogwood Farms, that offers meat shares; it charges $250 for a "regular share" of 5-7 pounds of meat each month from November through March, which can include chicken, pork, beef, and lamb. But for us, this would be impractical for several reasons:
  1. The whole share includes roughly 30 pounds of meat, which means the price works out to roughly $8.33 per pound. That's more than we currently spend on any of the meats we currently buy. 
  2. Some of the 30 pounds would be beef and lamb, which, as I've said, I don't like and wouldn't usually buy.
  3. If we had to pick up a whole month's supply of meat at a time, most of it would have to go in the freezer. Right now, we have only a small fridge freezer that's pretty well stuffed; to take advantage of the CSA, we'd have to buy a chest freezer. That would add an additional $200 or so to the cost of our first share, not counting the cost of electricity to power it—and we'd also have to find a place to keep it, which is easier said than done in our house.
  4. Five to seven pounds is significantly more meat than we'd normally eat in a month—and eating it more often probably wouldn't be a good idea, since eating meat more than one or two days in a row tends to disagree with me. Of course, if we bought a freezer, we could spread that five months' supply over as long as a year, maybe, but since it costs more per pound than we'd normally pay, it still wouldn't be a good value. 
  5. Last but not least, we'd have to drive out once a month to Hillsborough to pick up our share. That's about an hour round-trip, and it's in a direction we don't normally go, so we wouldn't be able to combine it with any other errands.
So all in all, it looks like a meat CSA just wouldn't be a good value for us—which is pretty much the same conclusion we've already reached about regular produce CSAs. We're better off sticking to places we shop now for for good deals on free-range meats: Trader Joe's for chicken legs ($2 a pound) and the Amish market for smoked meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, and kielbasa sausage, ranging from $5 to $6 a pound. And we can continue to keep an eye out at our local supermarkets to see if any new free-range offerings show up there at a good price.
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