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Farm-to-Worksite Programs Promote Healthier Eating

Local farmers bring preboxed produce directly to the workplace

A man holding a wooden tray full of vegetables.

Unhealthy eating habits are a key contributor to chronic disease in the U.S. To provide their workers with healthy food, pioneering employers located in communities with nearby farms are offering one of the latest concepts in fresh-produce delivery—workplace-based, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

Under this arrangement, participating employees prepay for a season's worth of produce. Bill Herman, corporate director of HR at Madison, Wis.-based Aprilaire, a division of Research Products Corp., is a CSA pioneer and calls his company's foray into making fresh food more convenient for workers "foundational" to creating a culture of health.

"We have a broad view of physical and personal well-being, and we have a number of ways for our workforce to get involved," Herman said. "Our CSA—six years in the making—has been one of our most successful initiatives."

Herman also sits on the board of directors of the FairShare CSA Coalition, a nonprofit education and outreach agency that serves as a conduit between farmers and CSA customers. "We get inquiries routinely from all over the U.S. asking if we can help set up something similar to what we're doing," said Herman, who along with FairShare Executive Director Erika Jones has been educating employers about community-supported agriculture as an employee benefit.

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"There needs to be a concerted effort to improve food knowledge, and CSAs can play an important role in doing that," said Jairus Rossi, an assistant research professor at the University of Kentucky who has been studying farm-to-worksite programs.

A video, "Bringing the Farm to Your Workplace," explains the farm-to-worksite benefit at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, La.

Subsidies Help

In a recently published study, Rossi and colleagues said partially subsidizing an employee's purchase of fresh food through a CSA helps to drive participation. In addition, some CSAs are eligible for wellness incentives from a company's health insurer; others use payroll deductions to help reduce the sticker shock induced by writing a $600 check in the middle of winter for vegetables people won't see until May or June.

"Show employees that whether they are paying a lump sum or in installments, they are getting roughly $30 of vegetables a week, and with the subsidy, that brings it down to something similar to or even a better deal than they would be getting at the grocery store," Rossi said.

Deanna Kabliska, SHRM-CP, who coordinates the farm-to-worksite benefit at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said the program's partner farms offer "sweat equity" discounts, in which CSA members can deduct a portion or even all of their fee by working some hours on the farm.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Wellness Programs]

Promoting the Program

Kabliska began promoting the upcoming year's CSA by distributing brochures from partner farms in January and with regular e-mails and updates in the university newsletter. She said educating participants about some of the more exotic contents of their boxes is a necessity. "You might be getting a lot of vegetables you have never seen before and aren't sure what to do with. So I try to send out recipes and have recommended cookbooks for sale from the CSA coalition."

An Evolving Model

Herman said Aprilaire's CSA farms began offering a concept called Choice Shares last year. "Based on the number of shares that participants purchase, they receive a number of points that they can designate each week by going online and seeing what vegetables are available, and then selecting what goes in their box," he said.

Breaking out specific health improvements for CSA members is still in its infancy, but 36 percent of Aprilaire's CSA members reported lower cholesterol numbers in one season-ending survey, Herman said.

Related SHRM Articles:

Candy Culture to Health-Obsessed: A Wellness Convert's HR Tale, SHRM Online Benefits, March 2013

Healthy Eats: How to Overhaul the Worksite Cafeteria, SHRM Online Benefits, October 2009

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