INSURING HEALTH – Medical Mutual Finds It’s Good Business To Provide Its Customers With Veggies Fresh From The Chef’s Garden Farm

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Marie Kaufman opens her front door, lifts the box stamped PERISHABLE from her stoop and carries it to the kitchen table.

"Wow," she says as she peels back the tissue paper inside. "Look at the little purple potatoes. And the salad greens. I’m so excited about this."

It’s one thing to have fresh produce delivered to your doorstep. Another thing altogether when it comes from the Chef’s Garden.

There’s the extraordinary selection – baby bok choy, red fingerling potatoes and candy-striped beets – all grown without pesticides or other chemicals.

There’s the freshness. These vegetables were harvested, by hand, the day before.

And there’s the almost unbelievable story behind how they got from the family-owned sustainable farm in Huron – an hour’s drive west of Cleveland – to Kaufman’s door in Pepper Pike.

Her health insurance company made it happen.

Medical Mutual of Ohio has worked out an agreement that allows its 1.6 million Ohio customers to receive regular shipments from the 225-acre farm for $25 a box. All customers have to do is go to the insurance company’s Web site, log onto "My Health Plan" and follow the Chef’s Garden instructions.

They can choose from a number of options – each weighing 5 to 9 pounds – including the Asian Salad Selection, the Veg-of-the-Month and the Kitchen Chef Box.

And for $8 more, they can order smaller packages of herbs and edible flowers.

It’s a deal the rest of us in Ohio can’t get in on, unless we happen to own a restaurant – and a high-end one at that.

Chef’s Garden grows food for some of the finest eateries in America: the French Laundry in Napa Valley; Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago; Cafe Atlantico in Washington, D.C.; Aureole in New York City.

The vegetables it ships to those restaurants aren’t your garden variety. The offerings include pea tendrils, wild rhubarb sticks, root beer leaves, four colors of asparagus and 60 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Nothing is genetically modified. Everything is natural, grown without chemicals, manure or other animal products in what is known as "sustainable farming."

"The whole essence of sustainability," says founder and owner Bob Jones Sr., "is that you leave the ground and the community in better shape than you find it – growing a crop in such a way that you help the ground, the people and the
environment instead of hurting them."

One way Chef’s Garden does that is by sowing clover, oats, buckwheat and other cover crops and plowing them into the ground to, among other things, add nutrients back into the soil.

That philosophy creates a perfect match, both companies say.

"This fits well with our corporate vision and mission of trying to provide programs that help our customers get healthy and stay healthy," says Paula Sauer, the Medical Mutual vice president who oversees wellness programs for the company’s employees and customers. "And it’s the right thing to do for our customers."

Cleveland-based Medical Mutual offers the produce to those with employer-provided insurance as well as to those who buy its individual plans.

As good as the program is, Jamie Court, president of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, reminds people shopping for health insurance to be conscientious consumers and look beyond wellness programs.

"The bottom line – the real question – is what are the costs of the premiums you’re paying and the benefits you’re getting if you’re sick?" Court says.

The vegetable program began quietly at the end of January, spreading by word of mouth and through Medical Mutual’s Web site The company will begin advertising the program in July when it features it on the cover of its
customer newsletter.

Some of the proceeds go to Veggie U, a five-week program supported by Chef’s Garden that teaches fourth-graders how to make good food choices.

The Medical Mutual partnership is part of the Chef’s Garden plan to expand beyond restaurants.

The farm also works with Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, outside Detroit. The hospital buys Chef’s Garden produce and serves it in patient meals, its cafeteria and a demo kitchen it uses to teach people in the community how to cook nutritious meals. Hospital employees and patients can also buy produce from the Chef’s Garden through the hospital’s Web site.

The new partnerships help the Chef’s Garden get more of its produce to those who want healthy food without shelling out money for high-end restaurant meals.

"We’ve had people asking to buy from us for many, many years," says Nadia Clifford, the farm’s director of strategic marketing.

That’s been tough to arrange because the Chef’s Garden picks its vegetables the day they’re shipped so they’re fresh. It would be nearly impossible to stock a stand at the farm and keep that promise, Clifford says.

That freshness is one of the things customers love.

"And there’s no waste," says Kaufman, holding up a washed and perfectly trimmed celery root she pulled from the box that was shipped to her home. "Even with all those greens, I don’t think out of a whole box I pulled out five or six leaves that didn’t appear edible.

"I could use a little more explanation," the breast cancer survivor says as she pulls out a vegetable she can’t identify. "But if I can do a little bit more to tweak my better health, I might as well."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: [email protected], 216-999-4987

Consumer Watchdog
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