Giving employees money to spend on local produce could improve their health, lower insurance costs, pilot program shows

Photo: Charles Bertram, Lexington Herald-Leader

A pilot program that gave Lexington-area employees money to spend on fresh, local produce boosted their health and local agriculture, Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Tim Woods, a University of Kentucky agriculture marketing professor, introduced the idea to the UK Health and Wellness program last year, backing it up with data from research he did in 2015 that found people who eat local, fresh produce are healthier.

“We were thinking if we want to really make a solid case to our employers at the University of Kentucky, Baptist Health, [Lexington-Fayette] Urban County Government, all these other entities in the Lexington area, we have to be able to have some really solid research-based, carefully measured metrics to be able to state our case,” Woods told Patton.

The research, published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, wanted to know if people were given a voucher to participate in a community supported agriculture program, would they do so? And if they did participate, did it make any difference in their health?

CSAs provide participants with a weekly allotment of seasonally available produce, eggs and meat and typically have an upfront cost of $600 to $750, Patton reports.

The study found that the 95 people who participated reported a long list of positive lifestyle changes, such as eating out less often, increasing their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, and a decrease in prescription costs and doctor visits.

“Most importantly, their monthly expenditure at the pharmacy dropped from an average of $33.84 to $17.23, almost a 50 percent decrease,” Patton writes. Also, the average number of doctor visits during the six-month program dropped to two from almost seven and a half.

Woods told Patton, “Improvements in these various health measures actually get better over multiple seasons. You see some movement after the first year, but after folks come back over the second year they are increasing fruit and vegetable consumption more. And the biggest advances are taking place amongst folks starting at the poorest places of health. That’s a really strong selling point to these self-insured organizations.”

UK Health and Wellness decided to create its own voucher pilot that included 200 CSA shares after Woods shared his research findings with them. Soon after, Appalachian Regional Healthcare in Hazard joined in and offered 50 shares to its employees. And then Hospice of the Bluegrass offered 30 shares to its employees, Patton reports.

“We are a self-insured plan so the cost of keeping someone off medication is certainly paying for the cost of her food box,” Liz Fowler, president and CEO of Hospice of the Bluegrass, told Patton.

Sandy Canon, president of Bluegrass Harvest, which administers the program, told Patton that they hope to expand to about 1,500 shares next year and that she is targeting the 108 self-insured employers in Kentucky first.

Hospice of the Bluegrass has committed to doing the program again next year. UK Health and Wellness said it likely will, but any expansion would depend on the budget.

“I think it’s been a really positive experience for everyone involved,” UK Health and Wellness Manager Jody Ensman told Patton.

Fowler told Patton that the program also has intangible benefits, such as employees swapping vegetables and recipes.

And it’s good for farmers Patton reports: “This year’s program resulted in about $100,000 in new sales for local farms, Canon said.”

Ann Bell Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm told Patton that the study data should persuade employers that “When people eat better and have good nutrition, life is better on many levels.”

A similar program in Madison, Wis., the FairShare CSA Coalition, offers insurance-funded vouchers to help people participate in CSAs. This program has grown from 96 vouchers in 2005 to about 9,000 to 10,000 vouchers, supporting more than 50 local farms and growing by $6 million annually, Woods told Patton.

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