Bountiful Benefit

New benefit allows employees to purchase local produce through payroll deductions

June 3, 2010

David Fitzgerald, C'92, is living a dream. After a 31-year career as a Henrico County police officer, he retired and moved to western Goochland County eight years ago to raise chickens and to farm the way his family did when he was a child with, "No chemicals, no pesticides, and no herbicides," he says.

This summer, University of Richmond faculty and staff can sample Fitzgerald's harvest through the University's newest employee benefit, which allows them to purchase shares of produce through a payroll deduction.

Employees may elect to purchase full or half shares of produce to be delivered to campus for 14 weeks by Rural Virginia Market CSA, a cooperative of a half-dozen farms in central Virginia. Rural Virginia does business according to the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, where community members pay a fee prior to the growing season to become shareholders in a farm's production. A full share of produce is enough to feed a family of four for a week.

Fitzgerald's farm, Homestead Traditionals, is part of the Rural Virginia Market cooperative. He will contribute heirloom watermelons, cantaloupe, and corn to the weekly shares. Shareholders can also order ahead to purchase his cage-free poultry, eggs, and local honey on a cash-and-carry basis.

This new benefit complements the University's community garden, which was established last year with 25 plots where students and employees can grow organic produce from April through October.

Both initiatives speak to the University's commitments to sustainability and community engagement, says Carl Sorensen, associate vice president of Human Resource Services. "Along with the community garden, this is another way people can access locally grown, fresh, mostly organic produce," he says. "This is a unique benefit."

Sorensen first started thinking about offering a CSA benefit last year when the community garden was established, knowing that not everyone is interested in growing their own food.

In April, after watching the documentary "Food, Inc.," which examines the nation's food industry, Sorensen became determined to offer a CSA membership as a benefit to employees through a payroll deduction.

"Asking an hourly employee to pay $450 up front for [a full share of] vegetables is a lot," he says. "If I can split that between seven pay periods, it becomes a totally different thing. You don't feel the pain of it when it comes out of your paycheck over an extended period."

Employees who elect the benefit can pick up their produce shares from the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness on Thursday afternoons beginning June 17. Not only is this convenient for employees, but Sorensen sees it as an important way to contribute to their health and well-being.

Sorensen says he is currently working with Martin Gravely, director of the School of Continuing Studies' Center for Culinary Arts, to offer weekly cooking demonstrations and recipes for "something that is in the bag that week," Sorensen says.

Debra Stoneman of Byrd Farm is the founder of Rural Virginia Market. She says the group's arrangement with the University of Richmond is its first formal liaison with an institution. The CSA generally sells and distributes its shares from farmers markets around Richmond, and she is excited about working with the faculty and staff at UR.

In May, Stoneman, Fitzgerald, and other RVM representatives visited campus for an informational program. They were met with an enthusiastic response from employees.

"I think it's great that UR is doing this," Fitzgerald says. "The movement of going back to natural foods is growing exponentially these days — faster than you can believe."

He says he recently sold 60 chickens within just a few hours, and could easily sell four times that amount.

"But the problem then is that we can't raise them like we want to raise them," he says. "Our biggest problem is keeping up [with demand]."