April 09, 2020
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Farm to workplace: CSAs get hyper local

PORTLAND, Maine — A truck pulls up to Maine Medical Center, and stethoscope-draped employees in white coats grab boxes. Contained within, a farm-fresh bounty of rhubarb, strawberries, peas and mushrooms awaits. This new workplace farm share from Lakeside Family Farm in Newport makes it easy for office workers across the state to eat local and healthy.

“They walk out office doors, go home and cook vegetables. It’s convenient for people that find home gardens too much trouble or are too busy to go to farmers markets and just want to walk out the door,” said Sarah Redfield, owner of Lakeside Family Farm, which launched the new weekly service in Portland on the last day in June.

Delivering fresh produce to employees where they work, from a hospital in Biddeford to The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor to The Maine Mall, and extending the bounty to food pantries, the concept closes the loop on healthy living and working.

The share, which includes fresh, seasonal food from up to six farms across the state, is offered for the first time this year at Maine Medical Center. So far 90 employees have signed up.

“We are a health care organization. This is just one small part of it. Serving fresher, high-quality food for employees and visitors comes full circle. It promotes health,” said Kevin O’Connor, the hospital’s director of nutrition and food services, who has been working with Redfield for more than a year to increase food options for employees.

This summer Maine Medical will feature produce from the farm share box in the hospital’s Impression Cafe.

“It’s really the right thing to do,” said O’Connor, who hopes the connection will trickle down to patients and customers to increase the 18 percent local food ratio in Maine’s largest hospital. “We would love to do more and buy from Maine farms as opposed to California.”

Not only does eating local boost the food economy and lower food miles, it increases productivity at work.

“The healthier you are, the less work you are going to miss. Companies save money by not having employees go to the doctor for diabetes, obesity [or] overweight complications,” O’Connor said.

On Thursday afternoon, as a handful of hospital staff eyed the juicy, jewel-like strawberries bursting from their loaded cardboard boxes, excitement was in the air. “It’s like candy,” hospital cafeteria manager Roland Gosselin said, popping a ruby berry into his mouth with glee. “It’s like night and day from the store.”

Why did it take so long for this invention to dawn? Distribution has always held rural farmers back from spreading their bounty. But transportation has not been an issue for this fourth-generation vegetable farm in Central Maine run by agriculture elder statesman Stewart Smith.

Smith, a former potato farmer and commissioner of agriculture, knew when they launched Lakeside in 2005 that they had to handle their own deliveries — that way more money stayed in Maine. “That’s been part of our model from the beginning: direct store deliveries,” said Redfield, who trucks produce to 30 Hannaford supermarkets across the Pine Tree State. They are tapping that distribution network for the workplace-supported share.

“We want to try something else and talk more directly to people,” Redfield said. The 20-week program offers a half-bushel box for $25. As produce becomes more bountiful, so will the offerings. To spread the wealth, all business dropoffs are accessible to neighbors. “Every site is open to everyone,” Redfield said.

Thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant provided by Maine Farmland Trust, food insecurity nutrition incentives made it possible for SNAP recipients to receive farms shares for $11.75. Redfield didn’t hesitate.

Because that amount is still steep for those living hand to mouth, shares in Brewer will be delivered every other week to keep it affordable.

At most food pantries, which run on volunteers and good will, time is tight. Organizers like Rich Romero, manager of Brewer Area Food Pantry, doesn’t have the resources to buy from farmers. When Redfield contacted him out of the blue, he jumped.

Lakeside’s refrigerated truck will pull up to food pantries in Brewer, Augusta and Corinth this season. “I’ve got 37 people that are going to participate that otherwise probably wouldn’t be purchasing produce,” Romero said. “The food insecurity movement has recognized and is attempting to get away from just putting stuff on the table to finding a nutritional source.”

The pantry works with Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine’s Mainers Feeding Mainers program, but by the time food arrives on the banks of the Penobscot, it’s not always that fresh. For hungry Mainers relying on food banks, fresh veggies and fruit can be a lifeline.

“Nutrition components in obesity and health problems are huge. This addresses a key missing ingredient in people’s lives. Nutrition puts people in a better position to help themselves and improves their situation,” Romero said.

“Oftentimes, access and cost is a problem for the food insecure,” he said.

With Lakeside’s new CSA, “they pick up a box, swipe a card and go about their business. It’s more access at a reasonable cost.”

This inaugural share isn’t missing too many business hotspots.

Jason Lamprey, manager of the Williams Sonoma store in the Maine Mall, plans to “cook the box” to show subscribers and customers how easy it can be to use farm-to-table fare at home. In addition, Williams Sonoma is offering a 10 percent discount to all farm share subscribers.

For Redfield, it’s a new way to get off the farm and meet people.

“Until now we have not sold direct to consumers. I’m excited about it. We are used to dealing with produce managers in big stores. This is direct affirmation,” Redfield said. “Our farm philosophy is more Maine food for Maine people. This is another layer.”

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