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King County to use its award-winning employee wellness program to support local farmers

Summary

King County will build upon the success of its award-winning wellness program by providing its 13,000 employees and their families with an incentive to purchase fruits and vegetables from local farmers. It’s an example of how Executive Dow Constantine is working to reduce the County’s healthcare costs, improve employee health, and promote greater demand for local produce.

Story

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King County will use its award-winning employee wellness program as the foundation for a pilot project designed to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and support local farmers.

The Healthy Local Eating pilot project will offer the county’s 13,000 employees the opportunity to reduce their out-of-pocket healthcare costs by purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables. It’s an extension of the county’s Healthy Incentives program, which last year received Harvard’s Innovations in American Government Award.

“We’re building on the success of our wellness program by providing employees and their families an extra incentive to support local farmers,” said Executive Constantine. “This is a great opportunity for King County to once again create an innovative model that can be replicated in the public and private sectors.”

King County’s Healthy Incentives program helps employees and their families build healthy habits and manage chronic conditions more effectively. Employees who participate in wellness activities such as exercise, smoking cessation or diabetes control are rewarded with lower out-of-pocket expenses. The Healthy Local Eating project, which will be implemented in two stages over 2016 and 2017, would add purchases of local fruits and vegetables from farmers markets and Community-Supported Agriculture programs, known as CSAs, as another option for employees to meet their wellness goals, while helping local farming businesses at the same time.

The pilot project received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create program guidelines and a reporting structure. The grant will also launch an aggressive promotional campaign to create awareness about farmers markets and Community-Supported Agriculture programs, known as CSAs, and the benefits of eating healthy local foods.

Despite an improved overall King County economy, growing population and ranking as the second largest market for local food in the United States, the county’s agriculture industry has seen its share of the county’s $6 billion annual food market decline. According to USDA census data, the value of King County agriculture has decreased 4 percent since 2007.

King County’s 42 farmers markets brought in an estimated $20 million in revenue in 2012, while CSAs brought in around $2 million. Despite these achievements, farmers markets and CSAs accounted for only 3 percent of the county’s $6 billion food market. King County has the fourth-largest number of small farms – 20 acres or less – in Washington state with more than 1,800 farms.

It was those trends that led Executive Constantine to launch the Local Food Initiative, an aggressive county-wide effort to boost the local food economy and create better access to healthy foods.

The Healthy Local Eating project would deliver on one of Executive Constantine’s top 20 priorities in the Initiative report, which underlined a need to increase attendance and purchases at farmers markets and support local CSAs so they remain reliable revenue sources for local farmers.

CSAs have become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer, who offers a certain number of what are known as “shares" to the public. Typically, the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share and, in return, receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

King County created Healthy Incentives in 2005 to stop its health care costs from increasing at unsustainable rates. Through improved health of employees and use of higher quality health care, the county has reduced the rate of its health care trend from 12.2 percent to 4.3 percent, avoiding $46 million in costs. Participants have lost 19 tons more than a national comparison group and the smoking rate has dropped below the national average from 12 percent to 4.71 percent. Engagement has been at or above 90 percent since the program began.

To learn more about the King County Local Food Initiative, visit http://www.kingcounty.gov/exec/local-food. Find a comprehensive list of farmers markets in King County and beyond at http://www.pugetsoundfresh.org/markets/list.