Bringing the Farm to Work

By Andrew Smiley

A public health dietician, a Web development expert and a local food advocate walk into a bar…no punch line among them, but the trio is feeling a little punch-drunk from the previous six months of intense planning and strategizing. This evening is a celebratory event as the group’s shared vision—the new “Farm to Work” project—has just launched.

Months earlier, dietary specialist and project leader Lindsay Rodgers had begun developing a new worksite wellness program for employees of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). Rodgers envisioned a practical, easy way for employees to have access to fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables while on the job, and the idea for Farm to Work was born. 

When the project called for building connections between Central Texas farmers and consumers in the Austin area, the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) seemed the obvious choice. Eric Leversen of WebChronic Consulting LLC, a Web developer familiar with DSHS, also emerged as a willing partner to build the Farm to Work Internet commerce tool, with investment support from STEPS to a Healthier Austin, a citywide health promotion and support organization under Austin Health and Human Services. And Sonny Naegelin joined in as the supplier of produce for the program.

Sonny and his family not only farm close to 180 acres in Lytle, TX, they’re founding members of the Sustainable Food Center’s Austin Farmers’ Market, and regular participants in other SFC farm-direct projects. Sonny definitely understands the nuances of direct-to-consumer marketing. “I know how much I’ve sold before I start harvesting,” he says. “That helps reduce some of the marketing risk for farmers.”

With customers, a supplier and the virtual storefront in place, the first Farm to Work baskets—brimming with seasonal fruits and vegetables fresh from Naegelin Farm—were delivered on November 1, 2007, to 140 eager DSHS employees. Within a couple of weeks, other state offices, city agencies and private companies bombarded the program developers with requests to bring the project to their sites.

To keep up with demand, Naegelin Farms took on another worksite in April 2008, and the Ardoin family of Acadian Farm in Moulton began to serve two other sites. A satellite office of DSHS on Howard Lane began participating in Farm to Work, as did the City of Austin office at One Texas Center. Local online software and services company Convio and the diagnostic and therapeutic genetics firm, Asuragen, joined shortly thereafter.

As the driving force and pioneer of the Farm to Work program, Rodgers remains proud of the broader public health impact of Farm to Work. “Not only are employees getting direct access to the most flavorful and nutritious fruits and veggies,” she explains, “but it’s also about ensuring that the option for fresh, local food continues through the long-term. Projects like this help keep a family on the farm where they can continue to serve as stewards of the land.”

To get involved, call Andrew Smiley at 512-236-0074, ext.102.