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Quantified Awesome: Community-supported agriculture with Plan B Organic Farms, fall 2011

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After a good summer season with Plan B Organic Farms, we decided to sign up for their fall season as well. This time, I made sure to weigh and track all the produce that came in. I also took notes on what we did with the produce to make it easier to think of ways to use them before they were wasted.

Here’s what I was curious about:

  • How much did we get?
  • What was the cost per kilo or pound?
  • How does it compare to organic produce prices at the supermarket?
  • What were the proportions like? Did they match up with our perceptions?
  • How do I feel about the different vegetables now?

How much did we get? Over the 11 distributions I tracked, we received a total of 71.6 kilograms of organic produce and a container of apple cider. This worked out to an average of 6.5kg per distribution, with a standard deviation of 1.08kg.

What was the cost per kilo or pound? Weekly half-shares cost $25, about $3.84/kg or $1.75/lb of organic produce (not including the cider).

How does it compare to organic produce prices at the supermarket? The No Frills supermarket we usually shop at doesn’t have a wide selection of organic produce, so I used prices from GroceryGateway instead. In a past analysis, I found them to be usually 10% more than No Frills prices, and there are minimum order limits and delivery fees as well. Using the prices for organic produce whenever available and guessing “bunch” weights from my data, I calculated that we received an average of $31 of produce each week (including the cider). This worked out to a savings of $6 per week, or 20% (not including taxes, delivery charges, or other purchases to meet the minimum).

Would we have bought all that produce if we weren’t part of the community-supported agriculture program? I’m not sure, but the commitment device of having a box of vegetables come into our house every week helped us improve our diet.

What were the proportions like? Did they match up with our perceptions?

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I’m surprised by this, because it felt like we received a whole lot more squash and cabbage (which I’ve included in the Greens category). They were bulky and not in our usual cooking repertoire, so they were more of a challenge. We mostly managed to finishing the cabbage, but we had to cut up and throw some of the squash away. The apples and tomatoes were occasionally suspect, too.

Here’s the breakdown within each category:

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On average, we received 11 different types in a distribution (standard deviation = 1.2), covering 32 different types in total. The fall box included imported items such as bananas and kiwi to fill out the selection, as well as produce grown in greenhouses.

How do I feel about the different vegetables now? After two seasons of community-supported agriculture, I’m more comfortable with dealing with the increased volume of vegetables passing through our kitchen. We’ve organized the pantries with bins so that we can store all the squash and onions neatly, and we manage to get through the produce in our fridge drawers in a reasonable period of time. We waste a small fraction of the produce through inattention (apples, mostly), but have managed to convert most of the produce into good food. I’d say we’re working at 90-95% efficiency or so.

Some experimental recipes have been more fun than others. Sweet potato fries have become a favourite in the house. Baked acorn squash with brown sugar and butter is a nice winter dessert. We discovered that adding sausages to butternut squash soup makes it much easier to finish. Turnips and beets still need a lot of tweaking.

We’ve signed up for a bi-weekly winter share from Cooper’s Farm CSA in order to take advantage of delivery. We happened to start with their program in time to make a side-by-side comparison with Plan B Organic Farms, and they turned out favourably (although their produce required more scrubbing). We’ll see how things work out over the next season.

Here’s my raw data.

How I tracked this: I built a small tool for tracking community-supported agriculture into my Quantified Awesome website. Every week, I weighed all the produce and typed in the their names and weights. At the end of the season, I copied the data and used pivot tables in Microsoft Excel to analyze the results by category and week. I manually checked the GroceryGateway website for prices, and I used VLOOKUP to cross-reference the data with the prices.

My input system didn’t do anything special that a spreadsheet couldn’t handle, although I liked how the weights became part of my dashboard. If you want to start tracking either community-supported agriculture or your regular groceries, you can start with a spreadsheet (Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice). Log the produce you receive or buy, and summarize them in ways that help you answer your questions. Have fun!

Yay more food containers!

When we started cooking in bulk, we standardized on the Rubbermaid Takealongs Sandwich Keepers (7F58RDFCLR). The inexpensive containers were the right size for lunches. They stacked and nested well, too. I picked up 24 or so over several shopping trips, enough to handle a couple of weeks of lunches for W- and me.

Having discovered the success and convenience of this approach, we decided to scale up. Problem: Rubbermaid had apparently discontinued the product! They still sold Takealongs in different sizes, but the only way to get the shallow square containers was to buy them in a set or to pay a much higher price online. We didn’t want to buy a new system and end up with incompatible pieces. We looked all over for them throughout the year: Canadian Tire, Walmart, Zellers, Sears…

Today, W- finally found the Sandwich Keepers at Walmart while looking for some DVDs. Some were pink (cancer fundraising) and the rest were the usual red, so we guessed Walmart was clearing them out. W- brought home 13 packs of 4 pieces each. Yay! Now we can use up the other ingredients from the freezer and experiment with cooking a month of lunches in advance. Wouldn’t that be nifty!

Comparing Plan B Organic Farms with Cooper’s Farm CSA

After two seasons with Plan B Organic Farms, we’ve discovered a range of new recipes and learned that we can survive an invasion of beets. This winter, we decided to experiment with a different community-supported agriculture program. We chose Cooper’s Farm because they offered delivery, which will be handy when it starts snowing.

Plan B Organic Farms has a depot a block away from our house, and offers a box of organic produce for $25 a week. Cooper’s Farm offers delivery for $24.86 (including the delivery fee).

We received our first delivery from Cooper’s Farm this morning, neatly packed in a box. In total, the produce weighed 10.19kg, for a cost of $2.44/kg. Here’s the breakdown:

carrots 1476g
cabbage 3494g
onions 1380g
potatoes 1468g
sweet potatoes 651g
tomatoes 844g
turnips 878g

In comparison, here’s today’s box from Plan B Organic Farms (total: 5.85kg, $4.27/kg):

lettuce 355g
broccoli 734g
cabbage 1923g
tortillas 270g
onions 516g
acorn squash 989g
blueberries 170g
tomatoes 393g
apples 416g
garlic 83g

During the fall season, we received an average of 6.57kg from Plan B Organic Farms (stdev = 1.12kg), composed of 11 different types of produce on average. The fall shares included some imported items (kiwi, avocado, etc.) to add variety.

Plan B Organic Farms produce was generally good, but occasionally of poor quality: squishy tomatoes, apples with soft spots, and so on. Still, it helped us get more vegetables into our diet, so it was worth it. Cooper’s Farm CSA has been okay so far (except for one potato that we ended up chucking), although the produce required a lot more scrubbing.

It looks like Cooper’s Farm CSA gives us more local produce for our buck, but with less variety. We’ll see how the rest of it goes this season!

Thinking about how to get even better at bulk-cooking

two pans of lasagna

We like cooking in bulk. We find it to be an efficient way to make sure we’ve got healthy, inexpensive meals ready for the workweek. How can we improve our processes?

Cost and delegation: I’ve been tracking the cost per portion for the meals we prepare in bulk. Cost per portion tends to be between $1 and $3, while eating lunch outside tends to be about $8-12. I can prepare about 20 portions in 3 hours (+ tidying up of one hour or so), and have scaled up beyond that too. If we use $12-15 per hour as the replacement cost of labour (it looks like you can hire housekeepers for around that range), that works out to around $100 of savings if I outsourced preparation, and $160 if we do things ourselves.

I might experiment with this by hiring someone who’s experienced in bulk cooking and freezing, particularly if we can squeeze in 40 portions or more on one day. (It’s possible – see Once a Month Cooking.) If it works, then it can save us a chunk of focused time.

  • Upside: Time, new recipes
  • Downside: Cost and risk

Variety: Along those lines, we can adjust our grocery shopping so that we can eat even better. I was pleasantly surprised to find that lamb korma worked out to around $1.25 per serving. It still felt like such a treat. We don’t have to eat chicken most of the time, then!

We can experiment with new recipes for bulk cooking, and we can revisit old favourites. Next on my list: beef bulgogi, proper lamb korma (should try a few different recipes), lasagna (it’s baking season again!), shepherd’s pie…

  • Upside: Yum!
  • Downside: Slightly higher costs, time spent experimenting

Prepared meals and ingredients: We don’t use a lot of prepared ingredients like pre-cooked bacon, chopped carrots, or peeled potatoes. They’re more expensive than regular ingredients, and they’re typically not as fresh. We do use frozen vegetable mixes, which are much handier than cutting off corn kernels and chopping up carrot bits ourselves. We occasionally buy chicken drumsticks or thighs in order to save us time and mess in quartering them, and we also buy rotisserie chicken. We like frozen steamed buns, and J- has frozen nuggets from time to time. We buy the occasional frozen pizza when it’s on sale. In summer, we buy frozen burgers. We like the packaged lamb korma and the Jamaican beef patties. Canned soup is also handy. We hardly ever buy other frozen meals, prepackaged stock, and other convenience foods.

I would totally go for pre-chopped onions, as I hate crying over them. (None of the little fixes I’ve tried have worked so far; I’ll keep trying to hack this!). I would also go for peeled and chopped garlic, because I use so much of it. Fortunately, I can make my own packages. I’ve chopped and frozen most of our onions and all of our garlic. We’ll see how that works out! I’ll keep an eye out for other supermarket offerings, too. Being in a community-supported agriculture program means we buy very few additional vegetables (I’m currently drowning in a sea of broccoli rabe). We might experiment with using prepared meals to explore new recipes (like the way prepacked lamb korma firmly established that we have a taste for it) and with using prepared ingredients to make bulk preparations easier.

Prepared 1- or 2-person meals tend to cost around $4 to $5 per portion. Bulk meals like lasagna casseroles cost around $1.50 per portion, which is actually cheaper than our cost per portion for lasagna. Pizza costs around $2 per portion when it’s on sale.

  • Upside: Save time, try different recipes
  • Downside: Higher costs, package size is non-standard and throws off our storage scheme

Tools: I need to get better at using the tools we have: breaking out the food processor and chopping up lots of things, using the stand blender or the immersion blender for soups and purées, and so on. If I can use the food processor to do all the onions, then freeze chopped onions for use in future recipes, that would save me a lot of crying.

  • Upside: Save time
  • Downside: More washing (so it’s good to do this in bulk)

Meals:ingredients ratio: Right now, both our chest freezer and our under-fridge freezer compartment are at about about 1:4 (meals to ingredients by volume). We can make a concerted effort to spend weekends either cooking or editing one stack of frozen ingredients in order to replace it with one stack of frozen meals. Then we can shift to the chest freezer containing practically all frozen meals and the fridge freezer containing ingredients.

  • Upside: More convenience and variety, no need to dig around in the freezer for a meal, gradual editing of food in the freezer
  • Downside: Commits a chunk of our weekend (4-5 hours for every 21 portions?)

Meal density: Instead of packing individual ready-to-go portions, we might store just the main dish. That would double or triple our freezing capacity, but it would require more planning. Every three days, then, we would take out enough food for the next three days and defrost it. The next day, we would repack lunches. We would always make a large pot of rice each week, and we would keep frozen vegetables in stock. We might keep a few individual portions for emergencies.

  • Upside: Cooking main meals less often, having more variety
  • Downside: Defrosting and repacking takes time and foresight, might grab one of those multi-portion containers by accident when rushing to work

For this month, I’m going to focus on improving our meals:ingredients ratio, so that we can gradually clear out the old ingredients and provide a good base for future experiments. I may also prepare a large bag of chopped onions to see how well that works.

Do you cook in bulk? How are you improving your processes?

Batch cooking, community-supported agriculture, and gardening

W- and I are big fans of batch cooking. Making large batches of food and freezing individual portions means that our weeks go smoothly. There are no last-minute scrambles to cook dinner. We hardly ever buy lunch at work. Sometimes it’s like winning a very small lottery – will this lunch container be the one with the extra stuffing in it? Mmm. It takes just a little more time to make a double or triple recipe, and it usually comes to about as much cleaning up.

The community-supported agriculture program adds a bit of a wrinkle. Getting fresh vegetables every week means we cook at least once a week instead of every other week or so. The variety of produce means we try new recipes as a way to use up the produce: potatoes, zucchini, and eggplants might go into curry, green beans get turned into pakbet or sauteed vegetables. Even though it means we don’t get the full convenience of once-a-month-cooking (or however infrequently we can manage), the CSA program has been fantastic – more vegetables than we’d normally eat, and all local and organic too.

Cool weather and a slow start meant our garden wasn’t as productive as it was last year. The tomatoes have barely even started, and the bitter melons aren’t going to produce anything at all. We did get a few wonderfully sweet handfuls of blueberries and strawberries, so that’s something. Still, with tides of vegetables coming in every Thursday, I haven’t felt much like cultivating lettuce or even harvesting our basil.

The CSA we’re with (Plan B Organic Farms) offers a fall share from Oct 18 to Dec 31. It looks like a great haul, so I think we’ll sign up for that.

When gardening season starts up again, I’ll sketch a new plan for the garden to take into account the kinds of things we get from the CSA. No onions, garlic, lettuce or zucchini, but yes to herbs and bitter melon, maybe okra. Yes to peas, which were ever so yummy.

Maybe I’ll try farmers’ markets too. I do like the convenience (and the commitment device!) of having all the vegetables picked out, even if it forces me to get creative with all the zucchini.

It might be good to try out other CSA programs, too. Cooper’s CSA comes out a little cheaper and gets delivered to the house. That’s going to be much appreciated in winter.

Do you use a community-supported agriculture program? What do you think about it?

Thinking about improving our freezer use

We have a 5.3 cu. ft. Haier chest freezer in addition to the freezer drawer built into the fridge. We’ve had the chest freezer for two years now, and it’s been really useful. I want to see if we can make even better use of it before we consider scaling up. There isn’t that much space to grow in the current place we have the freezer, and moving the freezer elsewhere would make less convenient. I’d rather figure out how to use the freezer space more efficiently.

One easy way to to do that is to shift more of our freezer space from ingredients to prepared meals, giving us more time between cooking sprints. We tend to do a cooking sprint every third weekend. If we organize our space better and add more recipes to our cooking sprints, we might be able to cook once a month and enjoy more variety, too.

I spent some time this morning taking an inventory of what’s in the freezer, so I can plan to use those ingredients up. Here’s what we’ve got.

Baking
Butter 2lbs Cooking and baking; rarely goes on sale, so I could just get this on an as-needed basis
Crisco 0.5 block Mainly for baking vegan treats for tea parties. I haven’t been hosting tea parties lately, though.
Lard 1/4 cup Pies and egg tarts – more useful during baking season
Pie crust dough 2 discs Left over from the last baking season
Yeast 1 bottle Coconut buns, mmm
Bread
Bread 1 1/3 loaf Very handy
Burger buns 4 For burgers; useful in summer
Breakfast
Bacon 500g Mm, breakfast
Longganisa 1 pack of 12 links Breakfast
Steamed buns 5 packs Delicious – we tend to go through 1 pack / person
Cheese
Cheese ends 0.5L To be grated for lasagna
Grated parmesan 8 cups Gift from Tania – I use it in lasagna and other pasta dishes
Nacho cheese mix 1kg Great for potatoes, fries, nachos, and so on
Romano cheese 497g To be grated for lasagna
Shredded mozzarella 120g Quick way to make lots of things better
Dessert
Strawberry rhubarb tarts 8 From my experiment. A bit sour; needs a spoonful of sugar each. We don’t usually have dessert, though.
Turon half pack When we feel like frying
Vanilla ice cream 1 cup Just a little bit left – must finish it while the weather’s warm
Fruit
Fruit 3.5kg For smoothies; must have this while the weather’s warm
Mashed banana 3 cups For banana bread and for smoothies
Herbs
Basil 1 cup Raw ingredients for pesto. Can also be added to pasta sauce.
Cilantro 1.5L Stir-fries
Curry leaves 1 pack Thai curry
Dill 2 cups For… umm… mixing with cream cheese? We don’t cook fish often. I saved this from the CSA box.
Lemon zest 0.5 cups For banana bread
Oregano 1 cup For pasta sauce.
Ingredients
Carrot tops 3 cups Vegetable stock? But we have so much stock already.
Chickpeas 680g Curry, someday
Chopped onion 1 cup Also good for instant noodles or quick recipes
Green onion 2.5 cups Great for instant noodles
Parsley 4 cups Soups and sauces
Peeled ginger 1 cup Stir-fries and other Asian dishes
Red beans 1 kg Chili, someday
Meals
Chicken nuggets 460g J-‘s lunches
Garlic scape pesto 2 cups Dinner
Jamaican beef patties 12 J-‘s lunches
Lasagna 8 portions Dinner
Pesto 3 cups Dinner
Roast chicken with couscous 12 individual meals Lunch
Spaghetti with sauce 1 individual meal Lunch
Stuffed chicken breasts 5 J-‘s lunches
Meat
Beef mix (ground beef, onions, garlic) 4 cups For nachos, burritos, or pasta sauce
Burger patties 4 Must finish this while the weather’s warm
Dry salt bellies 412g For baked beans, because the pork bellies are sometimes not stocked at the supermarket
Italian sausages 4 For pasta sauce
Misc.
Bag of ice cubes 1 L Drinks
Ice packs 3 To cool things down
Seafood
Basa 1 fillet This one’s pretty old. I should throw it out.
Crab sticks 2 packs x 340g The occasional sushi; probably should use this up and then just buy on an as-needed basis
Halibut 1 L Gift; must defrost and fry sometime
Shrimp 340g Mm, pad thai.
Stocks and sauces
Bones for stock 3 chickens From our last cooking sprint
Chicken gravy starter 1 cup This must be from the other time we roasted chickens. We don’t often make or eat gravy, though
Chicken stock 14 cups We have so much stock. We should use it more often. Maybe I’ll use it to cook rice.
Turkey stock 2 cups This is from last year. I should toss it out.
Vegetables
Carrot sticks 340g From my let’s-freeze-the-carrots experiment
Chopped carrots 380g For chili or other dishes
Mixed vegetables 1.5kg For frozen lunches
Okra 520g For pinakbet. Hard to get at the nearby supermarket, so we keep a stash. Dependent on bittermelon availability, though, and that’s also rare.
Shredded zucchini 2 cups Zucchini delayed is zucchini denied. I should sneak these into brownies sometime.
Spinach 0.5 L For smoothies; must have this while the weather’s warm
Steak-cut fries 1kg Regular fries or chili cheese fries. Yum, although frying is scary.
Vegetable ends for stock 1.1kg When I figure out how to get through more stock, I’ll cook this into a vegetable stock

Some things are clear candidates for tossing. Some things are there because the community-supported agriculture box had more produce than we could finish in a week (dill, etc.). For many items in our fridge, though, it’s more of a shift from stocking up to buying ingredients as we need them – not a bad idea, particularly if we scale up and plan recipes well. I estimate that prepared meals take up a ninth of our current freezing capacity. There’ll be room to grow once we get through these raw ingredients.

We’ve adopted a few freezer practices that have turned out to be quite useful. Standardized containers make food easy to stack. Grouping loose items into large bags (red for meat, green for vegetables, and so on) makes it easier to dig through the freezer in search of something. I can figure out a better way to index the infrequently-used frozen items so that we get visual reminders to use them up – maybe in that home dashboard I’ve been building. Hmm…