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Vegetables Take On Office Doughnuts When Farms Connect With Workers

A program called Farm To Work is making it easy and affordable for employees in central Texas to pick up baskets of local produce at the office.

Employers have long known that one way to employees' hearts is through their stomachs.

But these days employers are plying employees not just with doughnuts, but with fresh vegetables, too — an effort to make sure those hearts are healthy. Tech companies are hiring professional chefs to prepare healthful lunches and snacks. And in Texas, a program called Farm To Work is making it easy and affordable for employees to pick up baskets of local produce at the office. It's a new twist on community supported agriculture; call it workplace supported agriculture.

The goal of Farm to Work is to try to get people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables — since few Americans are getting their recommended intake. And it seems to be working. According to a study published Thursday in Preventing Chronic Disease, an online journal from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2007, when Farm To Work began, and 2012, about 37,500 baskets of produce were purchased through the program and participation went up over time. (About 900 baskets were also given away free.)

Unlike in a standard CSA model, participants aren't required to pay an initial lump sum or commit to buying every week. Instead, they can sign up to receive produce on any given week. Boxes' prices have varied over the years, but they now cost $20 apiece. (The boxes' weight varies by week.)

Today, Farm to Work, which started by connecting just one farm to the Texas Department of State Health Services, has 10 farmers and 49 work sites. Anywhere from 200 to about 2,000 employees participate at each site. There's a waiting list of employers in Austin and the model has expanded to San Antonio and Houston.

While some Farm to Work participants may eat local, most are new recruits to the local and fresh food movement — and are more likely to hit the supermarket, says Andrew Smiley, executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Food Center and one of the program's founders. The point of the program, says Smiley, is, "to make healthy the easy choice."

A first step to doing that, Smiley's team realized, was simply making people aware of their local food options by bringing food directly to them in their workplace — which the program did with the help of CDC funding. Another step was teaching people what to do with odd vegetables in the box, such as kohlrabi and leafy fronds of bok choi. So Farm to Work posted recipes online. Smiley says his team has found that about a third of customers in a given month are regular shoppers – a startlingly high figure given how hard it is to change people's dietary habits.

Other groups around the country are also looking into workplace produce delivery schemes. While some hew closely to the traditional CSA model, others are experimenting with wholly different setups.

The Farm Fresh Program in Bellingham, Wash., connects local farmers to employers interested in receiving weekly deliveries. In some instances, says Becca Taber, membership coordinator at Sustainable Connections, the nonprofit that helps link farmers and employers, an employer pays the membership cost upfront and then takes gradual deductions from employers' paychecks. (One reason farmers in Austin can forgo the initial lump-sum payment is a year-round growing season, Smiley says.)

Meanwhile, the Farm2Work program in Arkansas links local purveyors of produce, meat, eggs, dairy, pies and jams and jellies to area employers. Workers can customize their entire basket and have it delivered to their workplace or pick up it up at a local church.

Adirondack Harvest, a branch of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York state, helped a single farmer connect to area employers. The next step, says Teresa Whalen, the group's southern chapter representative, is trying to persuade insurance companies to subsidize workplace CSAs in the same way they're starting to subsidize gym memberships.

Back in Texas, Smiley says if nothing else, lot more people in the region now know what it means to eat fresh, local produce. "When the farm truck drives up to the front of the building and unloads 50 crates of fresh produce, people tend to see that," he says. "It's in-your-face awareness."

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