A New Way of Doing Business for CSAs Emerges in Chattanooga, TN
In 2012, EPB, an electricity and communications distributor, partnered with Gaining Ground, a nonprofit dedicated to local food awareness, to develop a business plan that would make CSAs more accessible. Noting issues for potential customers like upfront-cost financial barriers and education, and issues for farms like program administration, the two groups developed a win-win-win plan that grew from a successful pilot to a solid program. Here are the basics:
Who: EPB, Crabtree Farms, and Gaining Ground
What: A program in which Crabtree farms will deliver produce to participating employees at EPB weekly during the 29-week growing season. Full shares are $850. Half shares are $425.
When: Deliveries will occur at 3:00PM on Fridays. Program would begin in May and end in November. Payroll deductions will begin in April and run to April of the following year.
How: EPB’s Payroll Team deducts $32.69 ($850/26 paychecks) or $16.35 ($425/26) per pay period for participating employees for the duration of one year. A check is sent to Crabtree Farms on a monthly basis. EPB employees sign a contract committing to the program, holding EPB harmless for anything relating to the CSA, and Crabtree Farms signs a contract outlining the payment structure and other details as agreed upon by both parties. Gaining Ground provides support like seasonal recipe books and other educational materials.
Win-Win-Win: This program functions well for all parties. The Farm – gets a new customer base, a year round revenue stream, and a streamlined delivery process with little overhead. The Employer – get a no cost (excepting employee time) employee benefit while encouraging employees to eat healthier food, potentially decreasing healthcare costs. The Employer also benefits from the positive press and social/ environmental impact of the program. The Customer: gets a pay-as-you-go product that makes eating organic and local more affordable. In addition, the product is delivered at no additional cost and payment is convenient.
Crabtree farms was selected to be the CSA provider due to its location within EPB’s service territory, its long standing reputation for quality produce, and its commitment to education.
The Farm’s Executive Director, Joel Houser, believes the program has been a great way to sell produce: “For Crabtree, this has been a no-brainer. It is a unique, progressive program that we are proud to be part of. We are able to sell more of our food to customers that are within 5 miles of the farm who probably wouldn’t be in our CSA otherwise. It works well with our mission of connecting Chattanoogans with our local foodshed. This is a model that could revolutionize the way that small farms market their produce. If we could sell all of our food in this manner, we would,” says Houser.
Gaining Ground helped in trouble shooting issues as they arose, creating a survey for pilot participants and brainstorming about solutions.
Ruth Kerr, program manager at Gaining Ground, believes in the model: “EPB has led the way in its commitment to support the local food economy. Their employees were able to experience first hand how local food is better for their health, community, and contributes to the local economy. Because of this commitment, EPB and Crabtree Farms collaborated in a unique way to make this program successful. We hope this model can serve as a springboard for other corporations who want to make local food more accessible to its employees,” says Kerr.
- CSAs will be left. It’s important to develop expectations early around the pick-up time. To ensure that the produce gets used, developing a process for these bags’ alternate “home” is key to keeping the program sustainable. EPB has a strict pick-up cut off time of 7:00 PM; after 7:00 PM, the custodial crew is free to take the produce to use or donate.
- Corporate Customers are More Traditional. Our survey revealed that while employees will enjoy trying new vegetables and fruits, their tolerance for exotic items like kohlrabi is limited. This year, EPB asked for input in the farm’s crop planning process, and EPB employees are receiving fewer exotic items. This change seems to have increased satisfaction with the program.
- Corporate Customers Value Structure. People working in a traditional office environment value things like CSAs & farm emails arriving at the same time every week, precise communication around what’s in their weekly bag, and as little dirt or bugs as possible on their produce.
- Be Specific: Contracts between the employee and employer are a must. Ensure that employees understand that they may not opt out of the program and that they are responsible for their CSA.
- Make It Fun: Employees enjoyed attending lunch and learns about local food and receiving recipe books.
In last year’s pilot, EPB employees purchased 3,500 pounds of local produce from Crabtree Farms. In 2013, participation increased from 12 to 21.5 “shares,” and there was more interest than could be accommodated. On average, in 2012, CSA participants saved around 45% from the market value of organic, locally grown produce. In addition to getting LEED EBOM credit for the program, it’s an easily replicable way to invest in employees, the environment and local community at no up-front cost.
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