Chard, direct to your cubicle

Think kids are the only ones who refuse to eat their greens? Try polling the staff at Van Winkle Law Firm.

Photo by Jonathan Welch

“One woman said, ‘No, I don’t eat vegetables,’” recalls Van Winkle’s technology manager, Katie Craig, who was charged with recruiting participants for an innovative workplace produce program. “I said, ‘Well, these will be free.’ And she still said no.”

Craig somehow managed to coax a dozen of her co-workers to join her in accepting office delivery of a Community Supported Agriculture share, an experiment masterminded and underwritten by Healthy Buncombe, the county agency responsible for wellness program “Downtown on the Move.” Now, Craig says, the skeptics are ruing the day they turned her down.

“We get the envy,” Craig says with a touch of justly earned Chicken Little-smugness. Co-workers who swore they didn’t want to muss with fresh vegetables salivate when Green Hill Urban Farm’s Mike Fortune arrives with bunches of emerald-green broccoli, plump berries and fragrant basil, Craig reports. But, she reminds them, all of the bounty is reserved for the brave—and increasingly enthusiastic—eaters who initially joined the pilot project.

“When I get my delivery from Mike, they stampede to my office,” says Craig. “I get a giant bag, and then we fistfight and arm wrestle for awhile over who gets what.”

Terri March, Healthy Buncombe’s physical-activity and nutrition coordinator, can imagine few better scenarios than participants roughhousing over rutabaga. According to anecdotal evidence and tests conducted before the program, Van Winkle staffers have traditionally shied away from leafy greens. But the CSA recipients puzzled out the food group together, sharing recipes and contemplating on-site cooking classes.

“Initially, there was a small freak-out factor, because we got so much chard and kale,” Craig says. “Now I wish I had more to give them. They’re making stir fries, they’re making casseroles, they’re putting vegetables in their soups. At this point, Van Winklers should be bionic.”

“That’s why offices are great environments for behavioral change,” March says, beaming. Healthy Buncombe is trying to put offices’ notoriously vibrant rumor mills—which usually buzz with news of hookups and too-short hemlines—to work in service of staffers’ lifestyles. As in: “Pssst, did you see Karen’s asparagus this morning?”

“Women tend to be able to guide each other,” Craig says. “So if you can lead each other to new habits, that’s what we’re trying to do.

“I’ve noticed when we’re able to make healthy choices available, peer pressure diverts people to the healthy choice,” she adds, remembering a meeting in which the first staffer to hit the snack line reached for a fruit tray rather than a plate of sugary pastries. “Those dessert bars went untouched.”

Craig admits peer pressure alone won’t put produce on office workers’ plates: “Healthy eating is a choice, a decision and a plan,” she says. “I have to remember to pack my lunch before leaving the house, to bring a water bottle with me.”

“We hope healthy choices will just magically appear before us,” she sighs.

With the CSA program, they did. Healthy Buncombe bought seasonal shares for two downtown workplaces this year: Mountain BizWorks and Van Winkle.

“We chose Mountain BizWorks because we thought if they could make it work in their organization, they’d encourage other businesses to do it too,” March explains. “And we chose Van Winkle because so many people associate CSAs with an alternative lifestyle; we wanted to go with Van Winkle because it’s not the stereotyped group of vegetarians.”

Indeed, Van Winkle staffers were so unfamiliar with the CSA concept that none were aware of its historically crunchy connotations.

“It was a brand new idea for all of us,” Craig says. “Nobody worried it would be some guy in a van with a special mushroom delivery.”

To ease the introduction, Fortune purposely stocked his Van Winkle-bound bags with as wide a range of vegetables as his four growing areas, stretched across Western North Carolina, would permit. “I try to give them as much diversity as I can,” says Fortune, who pulls some of his most popular items from a small plot he farms in West Asheville, just off Deaverview Road. “Whatever people really like, I try to get them that.”

Fortune assumed the Van Winkle staffers would adapt quickly to mainstream vegetables such as carrots and broccoli, which have been known to grace even fast-food salads, but he shared their worries about greens. “I was a little skeptical they’d be greens eaters, but they really love it,” Fortune says.

Love it, that is, in their own new-to-CSA way: “I have one woman whose husband will only eat leafy greens if she oils them, puts them in the oven and makes chard chips,” Craig says. “She found a way to make it work. There’s no way she would have tried that if Mike wasn’t bringing these vegetables fresh from his farm.”

Fortune’s weekly deliveries have also garnered the attention of folks outside the office: “People saw me carrying around produce, and they were like ‘What are you doing?,” Fortune says. A number of other downtown businesses, including Lark Books and Top Floor Studios, have since contracted with Fortune for their own workplace CSAs. “It’s a niche,” he says.

Although Healthy Buncombe is planning to advertise the availability of CSAs during the registration period this winter, March predicts the program, like the best office gossip, “will spread word-of-mouth.”

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