Fresh Produce at Your Doorstep

By Jenny Dresselhaus

To encourage healthy eating habits, Madison-area health insurance companies are offering cash rebates to people who invest in a local community supported agriculture (CSA) farm.

The Madison area Insurance Rebate Program is the only one of its kind in the country, but Claire Strader, a local CSA farmer, believes other insurance companies will surely “catch on to its benefits and want to spread it.”

A CSA is an economic and social arrangement between local households and farmers. Households pay an annual fee to the farmer that entitles them to a share of the year’s harvest. During harvest months, shareholders receive a weekly or biweekly box of fresh produce from the farm.

Depending on the health care provider, program members can receive up to $300 in rebates on the cost of their share. To receive a rebate, participants must first be a member of a participating health care provider and own at least one share in a Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC) farm.

The health provider partnership is “a joint effort between area HMO’s and MACSAC to encourage sustainable farming, keep local dollars within the community and build a healthier Wisconsin,” according to the MACSAC.

There are 119 CSA farms in Wisconsin, serving over 5,000 households. MACSAC lists 34 farms operating in the Madison area.

Shareholders receive their produce at drop off locations near the farm. The cost of a share varies with each farm, but MACSAC estimates the average cost at $35 per month.

Becoming a shareholder in a CSA is a great way for students to receive fresh produce Strader said. Students can receive their share for free if they work on the farm for at least four hours a week.

“Going to the grocery store and buying produce every week is such a hassle. Being part of a CSA sounds like an easy way to at least try to eat healthy,” Kathryn Wolf, a UW-Madison student said.

Members give several reasons for joining a CSA. Some members want to reduce their impact on the environment. Food and Water Watch reports more than 20 percent of the fossil fuels used in the United States go towards food production. Buying local food at CSA farms decreases the distance food must travel.

CSA farms are also smaller and less ecologically damaging. According to the Department of Agriculture, the average Wisconsin farm manages 200 acres of land. The average CSA farm manages around 30 acres of land.

Investing in a CSA supports local farmers and connects urban populations to the land and the food they consume. CSA fees provide farmers with increased capital at the beginning of the year and ensure a market for their product.

“With a CSA people eat food local to the area, which means dollars stay in the community, support the local economy and directly support the farmers who grow the food,” Strader said. “This is very different then buying food at a grocery store where most of the food comes from California and most of the money goes to transportation and distribution costs rather than the farmer.”

Members also enjoy receiving fresh, pesticide free produce. Most produce at CSA farms is organically grown and distributed within in 24 hours of being harvested, Strader explained.

Some shareholders simply enjoy feeling connected to the food they eat. Each package of food comes with a newsletter and several recipes to help consumers understand how the farmers grow the produce and different ways it can be prepared.

Like the stock market, there are risks to investing in a CSA farms. In most cases, fees are paid upfront. If crops fail because of poor weather or disease, shareholders lose their investment. Members therefore have a personal stake in ensuring a successful harvest.

Community supported agriculture is a growing trend across the nation. In 1990, only 50 CSA farms operated in the U.S. Today, Local Harvest a nation- wide directory of locally grown food sources, lists over 2,000.

When choosing a CSA, there are a number of factors to consider such as the produce the farm provides, the location of drop off sites and the price of a share. The MACSAC Web site has a list of all its member farms, what they produce and their contact information. After selecting a farm, interested investors can simply call or visit the farm to purchase a share.

Members can sign up for Insurance Rebate Program after they have purchased their share. Participating insurers include Physicians Plus, Group Health Cooperative, Dean Health Plan and Unity Health Insurance.

Jenny Dresselhaus is a student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.