Bringing the Farm to Work: CSA program delivers fresh veggies to employees

CSA Nicholas boxesRestaurants are publicizing their farm to table offerings on menus. The organic sections at grocery stores are growing. Agritourism is booming. And another hallmark of the burgeoning interest in fresh, healthy food is people’s support of CSAs.

A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) directly links local growers with potential customers. Interested parties sign up for a share of a CSA farm’s harvest during the growing season, paying in advance. Each week the members receive a box of items from the farm, which differs each week, depending on what is available.

That’s all well and good, but coordinating the process can be difficult for those who work during the week. Paying the total charge up front also can be a challenge. Wouldn’t it be a great idea if the workplace actually coordinated it?

Yes, it would, and two farms and their patrons are benefiting from that approach. Nicholas Farm on Old Mission Peninsula and Providence Organic Farm in Central Lake both deliver directly to some area workplaces, including Hagerty Insurance and Munson Medical Center.

“They bring the vegetables to the people,” said Laura McCain, a dietician who coordinates Munson’s program with Providence.

McCain is very excited about the program, which will see deliveries beginning this month. She is a longtime supporter of such programs, which provide fresh farm fare and help people eat more healthfully. Familiar herself with CSAs, she was hopeful someone would approach Munson, which would demonstrate the farm’s enthusiasm and commitment.

Enter Andrea Romeyn. She and her husband, Ryan, farm 20 acres in Central Lake. Providence Organic Farm grows a variety of vegetables and strawberries, and began sharing its goods through a CSA workplace program with hospitals in the region years ago.

“Charlevoix Hospital (now Munson Healthcare Charlevoix) was the first. This is the third year with McLaren (in Petoskey),” said Romeyn.

Then this year, she approached Munson. The hospital hosted an open house for its employees, a number of whom didn’t even know what a CSA was.

“We had no idea if we’d get anybody,” said McCain.

The “Meet Your Farmer” program was a success, as 40 people signed up that day.

“It warms my heart,” McCain said.

Munson paid the entirety of the enrollees’ shares to Providence, and withholds the money for the CSA share from the enrolled employees’ paychecks. Romeyn and McCain said the approach benefits both parties, making it easier on the employees and providing the funding in bulk to the farm.
McCain splits her time between working as a dietician for patients and advocating for fresh, healthy food for employees.

“It’s fun,” she said. “We have fresh produce in the cafeteria. Last year, we had 500 pounds of asparagus and sold it by the pound. We had a presence (of fresh vegetables), but never something like this. It’s very exciting.”

McCain said barriers to eating healthy include fear of trying something new, a lack of knowledge about what fresh produce is available, and how you can prepare it. A program such as this broadens the horizons of the participants, providing employees with some products with which they might not be familiar, as well as options for preparing them.

“Andrea supplies a cookbook (for each new enrollee). I have my chef degree and I’ll be supplying a variety of recipes,” McCain said.

Growing Idea

Romeyn said she first came up with the idea based on the experience of her aunt, who participated in a workplace CSA plan in Wisconsin. Romeyn researched the program and learned that Fair Share Coalition, a non-profit that advocates for organic CSA farmers in Wisconsin, had a 20-year history in connecting farmers and clients, especially through the workplace.

“I investigated it, and said, ‘We can do that.’ It would help the farm and help the (workplace) employees.”

She admits that when she first reached out to potential workplace employers, the response was underwhelming. Rather than the enthusiasm she’d hoped for, she found the lack of familiarity meant people needed to know more. “We wanted ‘Yeah!’ It was more like ‘Huh?’”
Providence is working for the first time this year with Hagerty, but the Traverse City insurance firm isn’t new to the game. It also has a workplace CSA program with Nicholas Farm of Old Mission Peninsula. The insurance company’s program differs from Munson’s in that the employees at Hagerty pay the farm directly. They do have a $150 wellness benefit to use at their discretion. That means they can use it for something like a gym membership, yoga, massage therapy, or, in this case, a CSA membership.

For his part, Chris Fifarek, owner of Nicholas Farm, said the CSA program provides financial stability for the farm and the capital to expand its offerings.

“We have met so many incredible people and businesses who have wanted to participate, help and reap the benefits,” he said. “It is very humbling to know that when a family buys a CSA share, that they are saying, ‘We believe in you and value what you do.’ What could be better?”

Both Nicholas and Providence farms offer regular CSA memberships as well as the workplace program. They also work with farm markets throughout the region. Both owners believe the workplace CSA is a great way to reach people who may not go to farm markets or typically even purchase a lot of fresh vegetables in general. Romeyn said it’s also a great way to expand the market, a necessity as more young organic farmers come to the market and compete with each other for shoppers, a trend she heartily endorses.

“Ryan and I are passionate about people’s health and well-being. We don’t just sell great food, we educate through the whole season through weekly emails, newsletters, classes, tours, potlucks, recipes, storage tips, etc.” she said. “Workplace CSAs just seem like the best next step to reach our community.”