Top 5 Problems (and Solutions) with CSAs and Organic Produce Delivery Services
In my opinion, CSA programs, hybrid CSA’s and organic produce delivery services can and should, across the board, provide a measurably superior service to traditional grocery store shopping: a better, fresher, tastier, more sustainably grown product, at roughly the same price, delivered to your door or a convenient community pick-up site. What’s not to like?
However, like most innovative services, sometimes all of the kinks haven’t been worked out. Below are the top 5 biggest challenges folks face, and some suggestions about how to get past them.
1. Inability to Customize Orders: aka ”Kale Torture”
Anybody who has belonged to a traditional CSA knows that moment of pain felt upon opening a CSA box, only to see, for the sixth consecutive week, that oh-too-familiar bunch of kale, bag of potatoes, or bunch of carrots. Getting the same produce week after week can actually feel like a form of torture, possibly employed by the Department of Defense on prisoners at Gitmo?
Because small farms and smaller organic produce delivery services source their product from one or, at most, very few farms, and lack the e-commerce platform to support order customization, they often have no choice but to repeat product offerings for extended periods.
Solution: unless you are one of the few true locavores that can happily create tasty meals out of consistent but tiring fare of winter roots and hardy greens, you’ll want to find a service where full customization of your order is standard and easy.
2. My Produce Box Contains Too Much Food
Almost as bad as getting the same fruit or veggie week after week is getting too much produce, not using it in time, and having to throw some of it away.
Of course it’s always challenging trying to match what’s in your fridge with your eat-at-home schedule for a particular week. Subscription produce delivery services can aggravate that challenge by keeping your incoming produce volume the same even as your personals schedule fluctuates.
Solution: first, find a service with multiple sized offerings, so you can order the right size for your household; second, customize your order – select mostly items you know you’ll eat, and leave yourself one or two more challenging items that will push your boundaries; third, use storage tips to keep your produce fresh and tasty longer; and fourth, experiment with recipes that will help you to use up your produce rather than just stare at it on the countertop.
3. What do I do with this particular fruit/veggie?
Any CSA or OPDS worth its weight will eventually introduce you to a fruit or veggie that you’ve never seen before, much less cooked with or tasted. That is in fact also one of the great pleasures of these services.
Solution: As my 3 year old daughter is fond of saying, “don’t be sadish, eat a radish!” (sometimes easier said than done, for example try to get her to actually eat a radish).
The key, of course, is experimentation made easy. Look for services with strong recipe content and easy-to-use social media connections so that you can get quick help from the service’s user community. If you have no idea what to do with tomattillo’s, it’s a lock that others have the same question.
4. The produce is too expensive for what I get
Do you sometimes feel like you are seeing the same produce that’s in your farm box at the local grocery store, but at a lower price?
Solution: If the above is true, you may be using the wrong service. By definition, CSA farms are serving you product that is not traditionally available in grocery stores, namely the produce grown on their own farms, and usually you get a great deal on it.
Hybrid CSA’s and organic produce delivery services often buy some or all of their produce from wholesale produce distribution companies, which can be the same stuff you can get at a grocery store. The key is to understand the company’s sourcing philosophy…does the company work directly with and know the growers? Do they have access to the best local product when it’s available? Do they know how to properly handle produce? Are they constantly searching for the most local, most sustainable and most interesting heirloom varieties available?
It’s also important to consider what else you may or may not be getting as part of your service. Are you getting information about the growers and their sustainable growing practices? Do you have access to storage tips, nutritional information and recipes? Are you being connected to other folks like you via easy to use social media tools? The right amount to pay for your service should consider both the produce and the other features.
5. The quality doesn’t match my expectations
Any time you let somebody else pick your produce for you, you’re going to at some point say to yourself, “well, I wouldn’t have picked that peach…” It’s inevitable, but not necessarily a reason to avoid CSA’s and organic produce delivery services.
Solution: First, you want to find a service that does a great job of selecting items that they would want to eat themselves. It helps if the service has a background in growing and handling food, and isn’t just an internet start-up.
Second, proper sizing, ripening, cooling and packaging of delicate produce is no simple matter. This is one of those areas where small is not necessarily an advantage…you want a service with enough sophistication to be truly excellent at these very technical skills. There is a difference in the end result, and you should expect and receive the best.
Third, the company you work with should absolutely have a satisfaction guarantee policy and a super-easy customer service experience. Doing the “right” thing, by buying organic produce directly from farms should never mean that you are stuck with produce that is of inferior quality or ripeness.