It’s Thursday afternoon and dozens of city employees in Lexington, Ky., crowd into the government center to pick up their boxes of fresh produce delivered straight from four nearby farms. A local chef demonstrates how to prepare a quick and easy dish with that week’s bounty, and workers snap up copies of the recipe to take home and try over the weekend.
The weekly deliveries of locally grown vegetables are part of the city’s three-year-old program that not only highlights local farms but encourages employees to eat fresh, healthy foods. It’s a scene being replicated around the nation as more employers add Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs to their health and wellness offerings. “Employers are looking at their costs of providing health insurance, and see those costs just going up, so they’re looking at opportunities like this where they can identify an intervention and a program that they can plug into their existing wellness programs,” said Timothy Woods, a University of Kentucky extension professor who studies CSAs.
Guillermo Payet, president of LocalHarvest, a Santa Cruz, California-based organization that promotes family farms and maintains an online directory of farms that sell to consumers, noticed the same trend five or six years ago when employers and farms started asking him for software to handle employees’ CSA orders for workplace deliveries.
Thus, the idea of delivering fresh foods straight to employees began to take root.
New Marketplace in the Workplace
For years, CSAs mainly served organic-food devotees and households near the farms. Now they are finding a new market segment in workplace health and wellness programs. The sustainability and environmentally friendly aspects of CSAs also are attractive to organizations that care about corporate social responsibility.
Most commonly, consumers who want to buy their produce from a local CSA sign up, or subscribe, for weekly or biweekly delivery of a box of whatever produce is in season at the CSA farm. Consumers can choose the size and price of their box, and the number of weeks they want deliveries. For example, Green Earth Harvest in suburban Chicago offers lettuce, herbs and carrots in the spring, then moves into tomatoes and squash in the summer, program coordinator Cassie Pollowy said. Green Earth’s choices range from $61 for a personal size box delivered biweekly in the four-week spring or fall season to $704 for a standard box delivered weekly in the 20-week summer season — about $25 to $35 per box. A personal box can feed a smaller household, while the standard box is “generally suitable” for a family of four, according to the CSA website.
Traditionally, boxes contain an assortment of the seasonal vegetables a farm has available that week. Lately, responding to customer demand, more CSAs offer customization, allowing customers to choose ahead of time what produce they want or don’t want in their boxes.
The city of Lexington partners with the Kentucky Farm Share Coalition, a group that helps organic farmers boost revenue and give consumers access to healthy foods. The coalition started a pilot workplace program in 2015 with one employer, a handful of growers and fewer than 100 employees participating, said Woods, a member of the coalition’s advisory council. Today, he said, the program involves 11 employers, 789 participating employees and five farms. It is seeking more farms to help meet demand.
For years, CSAs mainly served organicfood devotees and households near farms. Now they are finding a new market segment in workplace health and wellness programs.
Ashton Potter Wright, local food coordinator in the Lexington mayor’s office, said the city’s CSA program arose out of her job promoting the local food economy and the city finance commissioner’s enthusiasm for his family’s CSA subscription. The commissioner helped identify the money in the city budget for a small pilot program in 2017, and Wright found him to be a good champion for the project.
“As a self-insured employer, the city is very conscious of rising health-care costs,” she said. The city’s existing wellness program offered discounted gym memberships and incentives to seek preventative screenings at the city’s health center, she said, but until its CSA program was implemented it had not focused on diet as a strategy to improve employee health.
There are multiple ways that employers and CSAs are making the programs work.
It can be as simple as managers buying a CSA share and leaving their weekly box in the company breakroom for employees to take whatever produce they want. More formally, the CSA program can be offered as an employee benefit. An employer may invite CSA farmers to participate in a vendor fair or hold sessions to introduce employees to the program. The employer can help handle sign-ups, arrange a location at the workplace for deliveries and even subsidize the cost of employees’ CSA subscriptions.
Another leading CSA coalition took the workplace program to an even higher level — working with the health insurance companies that serve area employers. The FairShare CSA Coalition in Madison, Wis., worked with insurers to launch a rebate program in which employees who are covered by one of the area’s insurers and who participate in a CSA can get rebates on their CSA subscriptions.
“From an insurer perspective, at least in the beginning, they were very excited about it because it was investing in preventative care and ultimately saves money.”
FairShare and one area health maintenance organization started a pilot program in 2005 and grew it to four HMOs in 2008. Out of those four, one continues to offer $100 rebates to covered employees or $200 rebates to covered families for their CSA subscriptions, said Carrie Sedlak, executive director of FairShare. The other three insurers merged in 2017 and now offer covered workers a broader program in which they earn points for buying CSA shares or for wellness activities, such as getting physicals or buying running shoes, she said. Workers can redeem their points for various gift cards.
Both programs focus on preventive care, but Sedlak sees added benefits in the CSA-specific one. “From the insurer perspective, at least in the beginning, they were very excited about it because it was investing in preventative care and ultimately saves money,” she said. “Because if employees are taking care of themselves and eating healthfully, they should not have as many health issues.” The CSA-focused program, she said, also allows an insurer to set itself apart from competitors, support local farmers and encourage people to eat fresh, seasonal produce.
Finding Green for the Greens
Funding employees’ CSA benefits is an important piece of the puzzle. Because many CSAs require customers to pay up front for boxes that may be delivered over a 20- or 22-week season, the initial cost can scare away employees, especially lower wage ones. To cut the upfront cost of subscriptions, employers often provide vouchers as a health and wellness benefit or otherwise pay some of the cost of employees’ subscriptions.
In Lexington, subscriptions start as low as $440 for 21 weekly deliveries of “mini” boxes and run as high as $880 for 21 weekly deliveries of “robust” boxes, both in the main season. The city cuts $200 off the price by offering vouchers to the first 150 employees who sign up for the program, and employees are responsible for paying the farm for the balance of their subscriptions.
Wright thinks if the city offered payroll deductions to help spread out the cost of subscriptions, demand from employees would rise.
“They love having access to produce that they normally wouldn’t buy, or they’re not familiar with, so they feel they’re eating and cooking more diverse vegetables, which is great,” she said. “Many with families reported their kids were really involved and excited to get the produce and help prepare it, so they felt it was a benefit their whole family was enjoying.”
Employers’ key issues are funding vouchers or subsidies for a CSA program and measuring the return on investment, Woods said. “It’s a big commitment for them to come up with the funding to provide the vouchers, the internal promotion and staff support,” he said. “They’re particularly drawn to these evaluation metrics. They like to see, can we document the kind of change that’s taking place, document some dollar impact measures on diet-related medical and diet-related pharmacy expenditures. As an employer, they’re needing to think of it partly in terms of what’s the return on your investment.”
And ways to measure the program’s ROI abound.
Changing Behaviors Decreases Medical Claims
Woods and a colleague calculated university employees’ diet-related medical claims and pharmacy expenses and found that employees who had high expenses before participating in the CSA program saw those expenses drop an average of $900 and $180, respectively, a year later. Employees whose diet-related expenses were low before the program showed no significant change in expenses a year later, perhaps because they already were in good health or interested in improving their health.
“They love having access to produce that they normally wouldn’t buy, or that they’re not familiar with, so they feel they’re eating and cooking more diverse vegetables, which is great.”
There are also surveys of how the CSA program has changed eating and food lifestyle behaviors, such as where employees buy their food and what types of food they buy. Woods said surveys show when people subscribe to CSAs, they eat more fruits and vegetables and less processed food, eat at restaurants less often and improve their cooking skills. Taking another step in the studies, the Kentucky coalition and the university’s nursing department are conducting a study of biometric changes, such as body-mass index and blood sugar levels, in CSA employees and household members.
CSAs can be attractive to a variety of workforces, but not to all. The Kentucky coalition’s customers include a construction company, a university and the city, all of which have different types of employees, Woods said. Payet of LocalHarvest said employees who don’t know how to cook or don’t have a place to cook may not be good fits for a CSA program, but “usually families are more the reliable customers, in part because the parents really care that the kids are eating well.”
“It’s convenient for the employee, and it’s a good way for the employer to make sure their employees are eating healthy,” he said.
Jane Larson is a contributing writer for WorldatWork.