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More Workplaces Dig Farmers Markets to Cultivate Employee Health

Although the exact number of workplace farmers markets is unclear, there's a bumper crop of such marketplaces nationwide, with more than 7,000 as of mid-2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

August 17, 2012

As more employers embrace a culture of workplace wellness, farmers markets are sprouting in offices in the U.S.

One such organization is the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which has a farmers market set up nearly year-round at various campus locations. "It has to be easily accessible so we can meet all of our employees where they are," says Lauren Whitt, the university's wellness coordinator.

Although the exact number of workplace farmers markets is unclear, there's a bumper crop of such marketplaces nationwide, with more than 7,000 as of mid-2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

Workplace farmers markets are being cultivated in places such as New York office plazas and federal buildings in Atlanta and Denver.

Whitt says University of Alabama at Birmingham President Carol Z. Garrison sowed the seeds to bring a farmers market to the university last year as a way for employees, students and visitors to reap the benefits of easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The university partnered with a New Leaf Farm Stand, "a mobile produce market" that delivers fruits and vegetables where access is reduced or unavailable. It sets up at six campus locations each week. Employees also can order produce online and it's delivered one afternoon a week.

Originally planned for the summer months, the farmers market at the university is open from March to December because employee interest was so great, Whitt says.

"Most of our culture will indulge in unhealthy choices because it's easy," Whitt says. "It's crucial that we have healthy choices that are convenient."

The university's Employee Wellness Program and the Hospital Food and Nutrition Services got the market up and running, and they've found it's an effective way to communicate about health and wellness initiatives, such as healthful cooking or eyecare and dental care, she says.

Because the university has a large school of medicine, "we talk up healthy eating and healthy living. With Farm Stand, it's a really easy way to see it in action," says Meghan Davis, a media specialist at the university who regularly shops at the farmers market.

That's also the motivation behind the U.S. General Services Administration decision to cultivate farmers markets at its federal buildings in Atlanta and Denver. The seeds were planted by the Obama administration's push to encourage healthy eating.

The Midday Market has taken root outside the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Building in downtown Atlanta on Wednesdays, selling locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as products such as jelly and honey.

About 1,000 to 1,500 federal employees, passers-by and other downtown workers dig into market offerings each week. "It's a great opportunity to promote health and wellness," says Kenric Lanier, branch chief for operations and tenant services in the GSA facilities management division in Atlanta.

While it's unclear whether farmers markets translate into healthier employees, Oakland, California-based health care giant Kaiser Permanente surveyed patrons of its 37 markets in 2010. About 1,200 respondents said they visited the markets weekly, and more than 80 percent said they were eating "a lot more" or "a little more" fruits and vegetables. More than 450 visited monthly and almost 70 percent said they were eating "a lot more" or "a little more" produce. The vast majority of both groups also were eating a wider variety of produce.

Given those results, it's likely more organizations will find it fruitful to start their own farmers markets.

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

Workforce Management, September2012, p. 6 -- Subscribe Now!