CSA & Healthcare: Treating long-term health conditions with fresh produce

Fresh produce has numerous health benefits - but unfortunately, nutritious food is not easily accessible to everyone. And for many people with chronic health conditions, medical care costs strain already tight budgets and makes access to fresh produce even more challenging. That’s why, in northern Wisconsin, FairShare-endorsed farmer Kat Becker of Cattail Organics and health insurance provider Aspirus Health Plan have teamed up to provide CSA shares to members with long-term health conditions.

For the last three years, Kat has been providing fresh, locally grown produce through her CSA to members of Aspirus Health Plans’ Comprehensive Care Coordination program. Aspirus Health Plan refers participants with long-term health conditions (from diabetes to high blood pressure and congestive heart failure) to receive a CSA share. In addition to fresh produce, those participating also receive recipes and tips on how to use the vegetables included in each week’s share.


Participants in the program receive a 20 week CSA share as well as an extended 4-week fall share. By providing access to 24 weeks of fresh, nutritious produce to members with chronic health conditions, Aspirus Health Plan hopes to remove financial barriers to eating the fresh foods that have the potential to improve chronic health conditions.


“We would rather pay for people to get healthy food options than see members prescribed to a fifth or sixth prescription,” says Lauren Schrage, Director of Operations at Aspirus Health Plan. “We wish we had a Kat in every county we serve.” In 2021, Aspirus Health Plan provided CSA shares to 40 members. But because the program is funded through the health plan, it will be difficult to expand much beyond this level right now.


There are not many programs like this across the nation, and Kat notes that the partnership is unique in many ways. “Most of the people in our CSA aren’t ‘foodies’, they just want access to affordable good food.” Some health care providers offer reimbursement towards the cost of a CSA share as an incentive for enrollment, but Aspirus Health Plan is using the program as a support for people to afford dietary changes, and they hope to show the positive health impact this access may have.


“Health and food should be more logically linked” says Kat. “Getting healthy food to people with health problems where it’s not accessible and helping them access it can be very powerful. Right now our system is very disjointed, and there’s not a lot of support for people who have a limited income but are not below poverty line. And there are added expenses for people with significant health problems that aren't always reflected in their income level that makes it harder to access healthy food.” Through their partnership, Kat and Aspirus Health Plan hope to continue providing healthy, nutritious food to those with chronic health conditions to build healthy behaviors and increase access to nutritious food.


And Kat is committed to helping participants continue accessing fresh produce even after the 24 weeks that Aspirus Health Plan provides its members. By connecting members to Partner Shares (FairShare’s food access program) as well as programs like Double Up Food Bucks and other farmers’ market incentives, she hopes to support longer-term access to fresh food for participants. Ensuring that people with chronic health conditions can eat good food for a number of years on end could potentially make a big positive impact.


“We love the program and would love to see it replicated, even if it isn’t our own health program,” says Lauren, “because we’re connecting people to a resource that should be so easy to obtain but is so hard at times in our current system, and educating them on how to use it.”