By Christie Balch, Crossroads Community Food Network
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a direct marketing strategy for small-scale vegetable farmers. In this arrangement, customers typically purchase a share in advance, committing to the farm for that season and helping to cover the initial annual costs of the farm operation. In return, members receive a share of the farm’s produce each week during the growing season. Normally, both the bounty and the risks are shared between the farmer and the CSA members (Cooley & Lass 1997). The pre-selling of CSA shares guarantees a steady customer base throughout the season and helps farmers get a fair market price for their products. In addition, the direct marketing can level the playing field between small and industrial farmers (Andreatta et al 2008). Members join CSAs for high quality produce, to support local agriculture, and for reasons related to environmental and food safety concerns (Cooley & Lass 1997).
While CSA is often described as a vehicle to increase viability of small farms (Brown et al 2003), the up-front cost can make it difficult for some consumers to subscribe, and CSA is sometimes perceived as expensive. Despite the cost, studies have shown that CSA membership can have a positive impact on health by increasing variety and quantity of produce consumed, as well as leading to healthier eating habits overall (Oberholtzer 2004; Perez, Allen, and Brown 2003; Cohen 2012; Hedden 2011; Landis et al. 2010). This is important since the majority of Americans do not eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, which can lead to poor health outcomes (Dong & Lin 2009).
This article will describe an ongoing process evaluation to understand the history and evolution of an innovative CSA rebate program in Wisconsin; how the program works in the context of the farmers, the health insurance companies, and the customers; and how to optimize the program for possible replication.
In fall 2013, interviews with 17 key informants were conducted, recorded and transcribed as part of the author’s Master of Public Health Capstone project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Key informants included the CSA rebate program founder, the Executive Director of FairShare CSA Coalition (the credentialing organization for farms), health insurance company staff, participating farmers, participating CSA members, and people who are eligible for the rebate but who do not participate (CSA rebate nonparticipants). Purposeful sampling guided participant selection. Participants were selected based on their ability to answer the research questions, and multiple outlets of recruitment were used. FairShare CSA Coalition’s Executive Director recommended contact people at each insurance company, and suggested farmers who were in close proximity to the study area and who may be interested in participating. The author personally reached out to these interviewees via email. CSA members of one particular farm were self-selected at a CSA share pickup day; CSA rebate nonparticipants self-selected through snowball sampling via email and social media. The author developed interview instruments, which consisted of semi structured questions and were designed to capture information relating to the study objectives. Limited identifying details are provided to protect participant confidentiality. Themes aligned with the research questions were identified using content analysis of the interview transcripts. Content analysis was done to identify themes, and results from those discussions follow.
This study seeks to evaluate the CSA rebate program in Wisconsin. The results will first be reported, followed by a brief discussion within each sub-section. Results are categorized according to themes from the research objectives as well as additional themes that emerged during the interviews.
In Southern Wisconsin, several health insurance providers offer a rebate to their members who subscribe to a CSA. Started in 2005, the original intention was to offer an innovative program to encourage healthy behaviors and attract new members to a particular health plan. The first health insurance company to offer the rebate, Physicians Plus, was looking to shift the focus of their marketing efforts from an advertising focus “to a more community programs model that generated positive change around health in the community and at the same time generated positive media attention to achieve our marketing goals.”
Once Physicians Plus instituted the program, other area health plans quickly followed suit as consumers requested the program: according to Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin, “we’re a not-for-profit, so we’re listening to our members that they want us to offer it, and we’re able to provide them with that benefit. We’re promoting health and wellness.”
Over the last nine years, the program has grown tremendously; there are currently three health plans offering the rebate. In 2012, between two participating health plans, $641,000 in rebates was distributed to 3,768 participants. Individuals receive a $100 rebate for joining and families receive $200, reducing the price of a CSA share by up to 40% (Jackson et al. 2011).
Currently, consumers join an eligible CSA and then fill out a form, which the insurance company then processes and issues a rebate check. Typically, the CSA rebate is one of the benefits offered by each health insurance company, in addition to gym membership discounts, enrolling in Weight Watchers, etc. (FairShare CSA Coalition 2014).
CSA eligibility is determined by membership in the FairShare CSA Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports and connects CSA farmers and eaters. FairShare administers certain aspects of the CSA rebate program, primarily by serving as the credentialing organization for eligible CSA farms. Membership in FairShare requires organic certification with an exemption for farms with revenue of $5,000 or less—though those farms must still follow National Organic Program standards (Jackson et al. 2011). Not all CSA farmers in Southern Wisconsin choose to obtain organic certification and therefore, in recent years, two other CSA groups have been accepted as eligible credentialing organizations with some of the rebate programs.
Overall, the CSA rebate program has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of CSA farms operating in the area as well as the number of CSA shares sold (Jackson et al. 2011). From 2005 to 2010, the number of FairShare member farms increased from 16 to 42 and the number of CSA shares sold increased from approximately 2,000 to 9,000 (Jackson et al. 2011). The FairShare CSA Coalition estimates that a 35% increase in CSA membership in the area is directly attributable to the rebate program.
Participating farmers cited that they typically sell all of their available shares and they acknowledge the program has heightened awareness of CSA and created business and visibility for their farms. The rebate, according to one farmer, "encourages many people to join CSA that wouldn't otherwise. It also rewards folks who are already making that choice.”
For consumers who receive the rebates, CSA membership became more affordable and a better value. Consumers noted that joining a CSA has encouraged their family to eat together at home and has helped them eat “more veggies and less processed food.”
Health insurance company representatives lauded the program from both a health perspective of their consumers and from the perspective of the participating farmers as well as the greater community. One participating health plan noted that they wanted their “members eating healthier and knowing where their food comes from." The participating health insurance companies like the program as it has resulted in high member satisfaction, and increased visibility. Physicians Plus credited the CSA rebate program with their reputation as an innovative health plan.
In terms of the broader community, the program’s founder remarked on the impact of consumer money staying in the community, and multiple interviewees stated that the rebate is good for the CSA movement overall.
While mostly described as positive, there are some drawbacks of the program outlined by program participants. Several CSA members who take advantage of the rebate noted they would not join a CSA without the rebate. One farmer, describing the fear she has if the rebate program was ended, shared the results of a recent survey she conducted, “In 2011, last time I polled on this, 60% of our members got the rebate. Of those, only 30% said they would join without the rebate. A whole lot of our membership depends on these rebates.”
In addition, several farmers cited a “double-edged sword” phenomenon associated with the rebate program. One farmer put it this way, "the good thing is that the insurance rebate has broadened the demographic of people who are CSA members, and the hard thing is that it has broadened the demographic of people who are CSA members, like, there are more people, but they’re sort of less devoted to the traditional roots of the CSA movement."
There are certain elements that have made the Wisconsin program possible, and successful. Having a central credentialing organization, the Fair Share CSA Coalition, to set standards for participating farms ensures that the health insurance companies do not need to spend time vetting farms. This organization also works with farmers to ensure their success.
The insurance marketplace in Southern Wisconsin is unique with low penetration by large national companies. It is also a hypercompetitive market due to each health plan’s connection with a hospital. This is perhaps why these companies have created such an innovative program. Finally, the participating health insurance companies see a clear link between CSA subscriptions and health, and they value other aspects of the program such as supporting local farmers.
This program is a novel model of healthy food subsidization. While it is not focused exclusively on low-income consumers like other healthy food subsidization programs (such as farmers market incentives that match federal nutrition benefits), it is an interesting model that has benefits in the community such as economic development for small-scale vegetable farms.
Andreatta, S., Rhyne, M., & Dery, N. (2008). Lessons Learned from Advocating CSAs for Food Challenged Households. Southern Rural Sociology, 23(1), 116–148.
Cohen, J. N., Gearhart, S., & Garland, E. (2012). Community Supported Agriculture: A Commitment to a Healthier Diet. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 7(1), 20–37. doi:10.1080/19320248.2012.651393
Cooley, J. P., & Lass, D. A. (1998). Consumer Benefits from Community Supported Agriculture Membership. Review of Agricultural Economics, 20(1), 227–237.
Dong, Diansheng, and Biing-Hwang Lin. (January 2009). “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption by Low-Income Americans: Would a Price Reduction Make a Difference?” Economic Research Report No. 70, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
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Landis, B., Smith, T. E., Lairson, M., Mckay, K., Nelson, H., & O’Briant, J. (2010). Community-Supported Agriculture in the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina: Demographics and Effects of Membership on Household Food Supply and Diet. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 5(1), 70–84. doi:10.1080/19320240903574403