By Emily Larson
“It’s just like Christmas!” a man in a blue polo shirt and khaki pants exclaimed as he opened the box. The box, however, did not contain a toy tractor, a remote control car, or any other toy commonly associated with Christmas. Instead it contained fresh produce from Featherstone Farm in Rushford Village, MN. Along the wall of a wide concrete courtyard beneath an imposing office building sit brown boxes bearing fluorescent green “Grande” labels and hot pink “Chica” labels, referring to the amount of produce inside. The wall of boxes disappears quickly as individuals collect boxes for their entire family and groups of friends divide its contents. A large white board announces what produce is in season, and many people read the list aloud with excitement, no doubt imagining the delicious future meals.
On Thursday afternoons, the employees of the HealthPartners in Bloomington, Minnesota leave their offices to collect their CSA boxes (Community Supported Agriculture). In a CSA program, an individual buys a share of produce from a local farm. Then, each week during the growing season, they receive a box brimming with fresh produce which changes depending on which crops are in season. For HealthPartners employees participating in the Featherstone Farms CSA program, they receive fresh, local, handpicked produce from early June all the way through October. But it is not only customers that reap the benefits of CSA programs. For farmers, a CSA assures them they will sell all their produce, giving the farmer more security during the growing season. For the community, it connects farmer to consumers and thereby strengthens the local food systems.
HealthPartners implements many promotions on healthy diets and living a healthy life and wanted to offer more options. HealthPartners Research Foundation decided to study the impact of CSA’s on the health of their employee through a research study.
As a result, The Local Food, Health Renewed study emerged, and HealthPartners began its CSA partnership with Featherstone Farms. The study seeks to show if a CSA, with its easy and consistent access to fresh produce, can improve diets and change eating habits. It also serves as a model for other health care institutions to encourage their employees and affiliates to eat locally. “The CSA is an experiential approach to helping people eat healthier,” said Nancy Sherwood, PhD, an investigator in the study.
There are 180 HealthPartners employees participating in the study, as well as employees of Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota, bringing the total to 400. Participants buy a whole or partial CSA share, or can split it among a few people. They also take two surveys, one before the CSA for background on eating habits and one after to track changes in diet. Currently there is no data yet to report, but the employees’ positive reactions to their CSAs are an important supplement to the hard, numeric data of the study.
The response to the CSA boxes has been overwhelmingly positive and Marcia Hayes, a Senior Research Project Manager has not received a single complaint. HealthPartners understanding of their employees’ opinions is consistent with the almost festive atmosphere of Thursday afternoon drop-offs. Two women excitedly divided their Grande box, splitting the green beans, carrots and cabbage heads in half. “You take more, you have a bigger family,” one said to the other, finally convincing her to take more ears of corn. They mentioned how wonderful it is to have fresh produce all the time, and how other employees are kicking themselves for not participating, but hoping they can sign up for next year. A Featherstone employee said it was her first time dropping boxes at HealthPartners and noted how fun it is to watch people get excited about their produce.
As employees picked up their boxes, divided their basil and chatted merrily as they transferred their produce to cooler bags, the Featherstone employees drew their attention to the green invitations inside their boxes. An anniversary celebration at the farm in Rushford Village and all CSA shareholders are invited, giving HealthPartners employees the opportunity to see where their food comes from. As the CSA shares connect HealthPartners employees to fresh and local fruits and vegetables, they also connect a large company to a small farm, suit-wearing office workers to rural farmers, thereby spreading knowledge and building community.
To view more HealthPartners photos, please see our flickr slideshow.