Farm to office – Hospital teams with farmer to bring local produce to employees

What would it be like to leave work at the end of the day with everything you need to make a healthy dinner?

Employees of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center will find out this month when the hospital’s Farm to Work program officially kicks off. For 10 weeks, participants will bring home a box of seasonal produce grown and harvested by Ponchatoula farmer Eric Morrow, a longtime Red Stick Farmers Market vendor. Almost 400 employees signed up earlier this spring for a successful Farm to Work pilot program, and the hospital is expecting a big increase this fall, says organizer Judy Deshotels, the director of mission formation at OLOL.

“It’s an extension of the farm-to-table idea, but in this case, farm to work.” Deshotels says. “We wanted to make fresh produce available to our team members and encourage better eating.”

Our Lady of the Lake had already launched its own workplace garden, and with help from the Big River Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance, has also hosted onsite farmers markets. Deshotels says the Farm to Work program’s produce-filled boxes are a convenient way for employees to eat well, and surveys from the pilot program showed employees have embraced the idea. “They also said they were cooking more and eating more servings of fruits and vegetables,” she says.

The new venture functions similarly to a Community Supported Agriculture program or CSA, in which consumers purchase “shares” in a particular farm and, in return, they bring home several weeks’ worth of seasonal harvest. While such programs have been slow to take root in Louisiana, they offer advantages to both the farmer, who has a committed audience, and the consumer, who gets a steady source of seasonal fare.

But unlike most other CSAs, the OLOL Farm the Work program functions within an institution, enabling large numbers of people there to take advantage of local food and allowing a farmer to significantly grow this aspect of his or her business.

The program is being conducted with help from BREADA.

“Each box is an education piece on what’s grown locally,” says BREADA Executive Director Copper Alvarez. “We’re excited about this project. It could be a real jumping off point for other institutions.”

Morrow will deliver boxes to eight different locations within the Our Lady of the Lake hospital system. He grows a wide variety of crops on more than 60 acres of land and routinely sells his produce at the Thursday and Saturday farmers markets.

“October is one of our best harvest months in Louisiana because you’re getting second crops of summer produce and the beginning of fall crops,” says Morrow. “We should have a lot of variety.”

Morrow says participants can expect tomatoes, summer squash, eggplant, snap beans and peas as well as later crops like broccoli, turnips, carrots and beets. He’ll also provide citrus and shiitake mushrooms from partner farms.

Alvarez says the program makes it easier for busy hospital employees to stay healthy. “This is great for someone who works shifts,” she says.

The cost of the program is about $25 per box. Deshotels says the hospital allows employees to pay up front or have the fee deducted from their paychecks. The program also features subsidies for lower income employees.

Read Maggie Heyn Richardson’s weekly food blog “Spatula Diaries.” Follow her on Twitter @mhrwriter.