Farm-to-Institute Project Brings Fresh Produce to Workplaces
By Sandra Wendel
There’s just something about the smell of a farmers market: a ripe melon, freshly picked green-top onions, the earthy scent of newly dug potatoes not to mention the festive displays of ripe red tomatoes and radishes alongside yellow squash. Now imagine that a farmers market is set up in your workplace. How convenient is that? And how does it work?
This past year, area companies were linked with green growers to sell fruits and vegetables directly in several area businesses thanks to joint partnerships creating the Farm-to-Institute Program (F2I). The partners were LiveWell Omaha, Douglas County Health Department’s Putting Prevention to Work initiative with funding from a Center for Disease Control grant, Partners for a Healthy City and the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition.
Children’s Hospital & Medical Center
Children’s Hospital & Medical Center was one corporate partner, and according to Cherie Lytle, the onsite coordinator for the hospital, “We wanted to step up our efforts to help families and children eat healthier and learn more about nutrition and fitness. It made sense for us to carry this positive message internally to our 1,800 employees.”
Once a month, on a Thursday, from June (because of the late start to the growing season) through September, GreenLeaf Farms set up tables of organically grown produce in the employee cafeteria during the lunch rush from 11am to 1pm. Employees were alerted by newsletter the previous Tuesday about the variety of products and pricing, along with prompts via signs and intranet postings.
“The farmers market demonstrates initiative and innovation as we spread a message focusing on good health and nutrition to our employees,” said Marty Beerman, the hospital’s vice president of marketing and community relations. “We’ve been sharing education and awareness with the community, and we also want to make sure we’re living what we’re trying to teach.”
The hospital’s main campus at 84th and Dodge streets will be expanding the onsite farmers market this year and adding recipes and nutrition education and maybe food demonstrations for employees during the selling sessions, according to Lytle.
Lytle chose to work with GreenLeaf Farms, a small local producer. “We took a leap of faith together,” she said. “We didn’t know how well the farmers market would be received. We measured success based on the number of people who bought or checked out the displays.”
GreenLeaf’s status as a certified organic farm was important to Lytle, who said employees appreciated the distinction, too. “They were a good fit for us,” she said, “and we were a good fit for them. We worked together to determine the best day [when the institution had high levels of employees onsite], time [the busy employee cafeteria with people open to food suggestions] and place [near the loading dock for ease of unloading coolers and bins].”
The initiative generated buzz and no negative feedback. What’s not to like? There’s no downside for the employer, and employees valued the time-saving convenience and selection.
As a bonus, the availability of fresh produce coordinated well with the company’s internal weight-loss program, giving employee participants a way to make easy, healthful choices. As a way to “grow” this year, Lytle wants to bring the producers into the discussion with medical weight-management programs the hospital offers to families with obese children.
Other companies matched up with other green growers who took part in F2I included Alegent Creighton Health (revolving stands located at six hospitals), SAC Federal Credit Union, Omaha Performing Arts, Lamp, Rynearson and Associates, First National Bank and the Visiting Nurse Association, according to Amy Yaroch, executive director of the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition—the organization that acts as matchmaker between producers and companies.
C&A Industries, Inc., hosted a weekly outdoor farm stand in its suburban office park at 132nd and Dodge streets and invited neighboring businesses to shop, too, said Jenny Noble, senior compliance specialist for healthcare staffing company Aureus Medical Group, an affiliate of C&A Industries. Employees from First National Bank and Lutz joined C&A staffers in the parking lot every Wednesday for seven weeks from July through August.
Employees from Valmont, Home Instead, Zurich and Bank of the West have participated in the program that’s now three summers old.
Other than the convenience, why does C&A offer fresh produce? The answer was in a companywide health risk assessment (HRA).
“We noticed with our HRA that our employees were not eating enough fruits and veggies,” said Jennifer Irlbeck, senior marketing specialist and chair of the company’s wellness committee called AurHealth. “When the opportunity came along for employees to pick up some produce to start getting them into healthy habits,” she said, the company elected to work with Wenninghoff’s, a local producer.
“We chose Wednesday because we know employees go to the grocery store over the weekend. By Wednesday they might want to get more produce for the week,” Noble said.
Through the work of the wellness committee, made up of 18 representative employees, the award-winning wellness program offers a new healthy recipe each month on the internal wellness website. During the weekly farmers market, the recipes tie back to fresh produce such as a cucumber salad or zucchini dish.
“As an extra incentive to buy fresh, C&A sells employees a coupon book for $20, and they can get $24 worth of produce. The company subsidizes the difference with the producer,” said Noble. New last year, employees who purchased items at the market were entered into a weekly drawing for more coupons. During the last week of the farm stand, the final winner was awarded a gift basket filled with produce.
Although no surveys were done to determine interest, no one can argue with numbers showing that over half of the 300 C&A employees bought produce at some point during the market.
“We get great support from executive staff, which is why we are able to do these types of events for our employees,” said Irlbeck.
Promoting Environmental Change
Children’s Hospital & Medical Center received results of a joint survey with the Boys Town National Research Hospital showing the needs of the child and adolescent community. One specific concern shared by parents interviewed for the survey was obesity. Some 30% of metro children would be considered overweight or obese, and this was a target area the hospital has taken on as a strategic initiative.
In further support for community health issues especially for children, a Partners for a Healthy School initiative under the same grant that brought produce into workplaces focuses on creating healthier environments. It’s an easy target because the need is great. Only 77% of Douglas County residents have access to healthy foods, according to a Robert Wood Johnson ranking of county health statistics.
“Partners for a Healthy City is committed to making Omaha a healthier place to live, work and play. Farm-to-Institute is one of the options an organization can choose to implement environmental change,” said Laura Feyerherm, the grant project manager.
With an emphasis on “work,” the partners are encouraging area businesses to look at making corporate culture changes to promote and fulfill the promise of the group’s motto to “make the healthy choice the easy choice” in Omaha worksites.
To explore options for participation in F2I, area organizations including churches, schools and grocers are encouraged to contact Live Well Omaha, Partners for a Healthy City at PartnersForAHealthyCity.org.
Sandra Wendel is an Omaha-based health writer whose lone gourd plant produced nine birdhouse gourds, which are drying out this winter.