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Growing the local food economy while shrinking waistlinesPrint

Food & Farming | January 19, 2016 | By Hans Voss

With Christmas parties and holiday feasts on the way, I offer a startling fact that just might inspire you to keep your consumption in check this season: A whopping 68 percent of residents of the five-county Traverse City region are overweight. Yes, two out of three of us would be healthier if we lost a few pounds, and of that group, nearly half are considered “obese” according to the official health department definition. That’s well above the national average and it shouldn’t be taken lightly because obesity is a driving factor in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer—some of the leading causes of death.

We all know the solution, right? It’s the same as it’s been for decades: Eat smaller portions of healthier food and increase your physical activity. But even as McDonald’s is offering healthier choices and health clubs seem to be everywhere, obesity rates continue to climb. The good news is that doctors, public health experts, and employers are teaming up with small farmers and getting creative.

One of the freshest ideas is “Fruit and Veggie Prescriptions.” Just like it sounds, doctors are writing prescriptions that give people direct instructions to eat more produce to get healthy. Programs are springing up around the country, often in low-income communities where people have a harder time accessing healthy food. Typically the programs include a stipend to help pay for the prescribed fruits and veggies.

One successful example comes out of Washtenaw County where clinicians at the local health department identify people with chronic diseases who could benefit from a healthier diet. The participants go through an orientation on healthy food choices, and then receive a “prescription” along with $100 in tokens to spend at the local farmers market. According to program leaders, for many of the nearly 300 participants it was their first trip to the farmers market. This kind of behavioral shift, along with studies that show people are most likely to listen to their doctor when it comes to health, suggests that taken together these fruit and veggie prescription programs can lead to a meaningful shift in community health.

Just last month, Traverse City got into the act when the state health department awarded a $50,000 grant to support the development of a fruit and vegetable prescription collaboration between Munson Medical Center’s Family Practice Clinic and the year-round farmers market at the Grand Traverse Commons. Munson’s community health and dietary staff will coordinate the program and their hope is to expand it in the future, which will increase health as well as support our local farm economy.

Creative ideas for health are also coming out of the private sector where employers are building health into the culture and business plans of their companies—and seeing real results. You don’t have to look too far to see a shining example; Hagerty Insurance, downtown Traverse City’s largest employer, has been leading the way for years. They were the first major employer to deliver fresh vegetables straight from the farm to their employees’ desks—a program that has evolved into a full CSA (community supported agriculture) partnership with two local farms that now delivers full farm shares to Hagerty employees every week. In addition, employees can get their hands dirty growing vegetables at community garden plots that Hagerty rents at the Grand Traverse Commons.

Hagerty pushes the employee health envelope even further by giving stipends to employees who bike to work and by covering registration fees for employees who compete in running and cycling. As a result of this commitment to employee wellness, Hagerty was named one of the top places to work in the country for three years running by Fortune Magazine for mid-size work places.

With such a strong example from Hagerty, you have to wonder what can be achieved if other major employers made this kind of commitment to health and local food. One model that shows what’s possible when the employer-farm connections are scaled up comes from a program out of Madison, Wisconsin, called the FairShare CSA Coalition Workplace CSA program. It’s a collaboration between employers and a network of farms, in which the employers serve as CSA drop-off points for their employees. In 2014 it had 14 participating farms selling 613 farm shares for a total value to the local food economy of more than $255,000.

We have a long way to go in our region to get ahead of the public health challenges tied to obesity, but Munson and Hagerty, along with great models from other communities, are showing us a path that can both move us toward improved health while supporting our growing local food economy.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a nonprofit organization in Traverse City that is hosting the Farms, Food, & Health Conference at the Grand Traverse Resort on Friday, January 29. The event will feature speakers from the FairShare CSA program from Wisconsin, along with other inspiring speakers. .