Most of the people working at Spacesaver, a shelving company based in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, hadn’t heard of community supported agriculture (CSA). That was until Anna Calloway, the company’s human resources partner, found a CSA subscription service from nearby High Meadow Farm that would allow them to get fresh local produce delivered to the office every week.
In the first three weeks, only 13 of the 300-plus employees signed up. But Calloway is optimistic that interest will grow, even in a company, she says, is full of “production workers who don’t always care about healthy eating.”
One of the first deliveries from High Meadow included garlic scapes and onion blossoms–the kind of things most people won’t find in the grocery store. And it made a bit of a splash among the company’s employees. “The [scapes] came with a recipe for an egg-based pasta and I tweaked it with a red wine sauce,” Calloway says.
For Meg, Mike, and Matt Kelly, the farmers at High Meadow, the odds are good that this new relationship could bear fruit. The Kellys have been able to increase their CSA shares by 100 this year by linking up with companies that want to make it easy for their employees to access fresh produce. And they’re not alone.
In fact, more of the nation’s cube farms are forging relationships with real life farms through workplace CSAs. In Wisconsin, the boom is especially evident. It’s the only state in the country where a handful of health insurance companies are offering rebates to employees who sign up for CSAs. And other states are watching what happens there closely.
At the center of the trend is the FairShare CSA Coalition, which evolved from the Madison Eaters Revolutionary Front (MERF), the group that introduced CSAs to the town in the 1990s. Now FairShare has a grant to link potential CSA customers with local growers, and the organization represents 50 farms that sell over 11,000 CSA shares annually.
Julie Garrett, the Coalition’s community program manager drives the roads of Southern Wisconsin enlisting businesses and manufacturing plants, hubs untouched by the local food movement where workers still lunch on fast food. In just two years, Garrett has enlisted 18 companies to which 16 farms have sold 390 shares. And she expects the numbers to increase.
“CSAs were once for country granola people, Whole Foods types, an elite niche,” says Garrett. “But by going into the workplace we’re able to reach more mainstream people who eat processed food, go to McDonalds, and may not have thought about healthy diets.”
Workplace CSAs are the way of the future, says Garrett. The shares boost the local economy and support farmers, and delivery saves time for working parents, who may not have time to stop at a farmers market on the way to pick up the kids. These deliveries can also help cut back transportation costs and, in the long run–especially with the rebates–lower food costs.
What’s more, a food culture blossoms when workers have a reason to talk about recipes or trade produce. And some businesses have been known to add an educational component by holding cooking demonstrations and bringing in local chefs. FairShare published a CSA cookbook, and one Madison, Wisconsin-based company called Local Thyme, even bills itself as “a CSA menu planning service.”
Outside Wisconsin, especially on the coasts, workplace CSAs have been around for years. New York City’s Just Food delivers CSA shares to businesses throughout Manhattan and Santa Cruz, California’s LocalHarvest helps dozens of companies–including well-known tech firms such as Google and Microsoft–connect to farms for their employees. But in areas where workers have long commutes, maintaining strong membership numbers can be a challenge.
“There tends to be a lot of initial enthusiasm, followed by considerable attrition,” says Erin Barnett, LocalHarvest’s director. “Sometimes employees find that between their long hours and commute they don’t actually have much time to cook, so they drop out. The farms that are successful working with corporations are those that find ways to deliver the types and quantities of foods that this population wants.”
At Research Products Corp., a Madison, Wisconsin-based air purifier company, workers seem to want variety.
After they were given the chance to subscribe to a CSA from Wholesome Harvest Farm, employees added both an artisan bread and grass-fed meat CSA to the mix.
Pete Hanson, a plant manager at Research Product pays $75 a month to receive organic and pasture-raised beef, chicken, lamb, and pork from Black Earth Meats. The farm, says Hanson, also includes a surprise in each box. Recently, it was beef cheeks. “That’s what’s great about the CSAs. They give you some things you many not have purchased otherwise, but that forces you to try things,” he says. After sautéing kale and kohlrabi with his wife, for instance, Hansen says, “the kohlrabi came out great, the kale–chewy.”
First and third images courtesy of FairShare, second image courtesy of Duluth Trading Company.