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Healthy Dining in the Workplace

Prudential's Healthy Dining Fruit-BarThe average American is 23 pounds overweight, according to National Business Group on Health, increasing the risk for many chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, some cancers, and osteoporosis. For many, those extra pounds may well be due to the sedentary nature of most of our jobs today (after all, it's unlikely you're reading this while out plowing a field!); indeed, 44 percent of workers report that they have gained weight in their current job, according to a survey conducted by Career Builder.

Of course, poor eating habits, whether at home or in the workplace, are also to blame for those expanding waistlines, which affects not only the numbers on the scale but also the numbers on a company's bottom line.

In one survey conducted by the National Business Group on Health, employers cited "employees' poor health habits" as one of the top challenges to maintaining affordable benefit coverage. Employees mounted their own defense, however, when a Nationwide Better Health survey reported that only 42 percent of companies offered healthy food options.

The good news is that today, that trend is changing, as more employers are providing a workplace environment that supports healthy dining. Offices are replacing junk food with vending machines stocked with fresh fruit and whole-grain snacks. Many companies are upgrading their dining facilities to offer employees convenient, quality foods, reasonable prices, and comfortable surroundings.

Employers across the country are heeding the call to provide a healthier workplace. At UPMC Health Plan, for example, the second-largest health insurer in western Pennsylvania has made good nutrition part of the workplace "culture of health" that the company promotes not only to its members, but to its own employees as well. The company's Dining Smart worksite nutrition program has been incorporated into food service operations across UPMC locations, which include more than 20 hospitals, as well as numerous health clinics and business facilities.

As with Prudential Financial, Inc. (see this issue's Best Practice Profile), the Dining Smart program is just one aspect of the company's worksite health and wellness programs and campaigns, which include an annual weight management team competition, and awareness and prevention campaigns for conditions such as heart health and diabetes.

On the other side of the country, the California 5 a Day – Be Active! Worksite Program is encouraging employers to implement healthy dining menu standards at their onsite cafeterias or dining facilities. Menu choices are graded on a check mark system: two checks for "excellent," one for "good." Entrees and side dishes are graded on calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and an emphasis is placed on fruits and vegetables.

For still other employers, offering healthier dining options has had an effect on how and where their food is purchased. In Maryland, Washington, DC, and Northern Virginia, for example, hospitals are revamping their onsite cafeterias by buying more local food, according to Maryland Hospitals for a Healthy Environment. Forty hospitals in Virginia are buying locally-grown fruits and vegetables regularly during the growing season, and 9 are regularly buying meat or poultry produced by local farmers who use sustainable practices. ("Sustainable" means, at the very minimum, no routine use of antibiotics, arsenic additives, or added growth hormones, and ideally, pasture-raised.) Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick, MD, tested out locally- and pasture-raised beef in its cafeteria and is now looking into ways to add sustainable beef to the menu more regularly.

Mid- to large-sized companies that offer worksite dining are finding that their food distributors and vendors are eager to work with them to improve the menu selections they are offering employees. Nestle Professional, for example, has devised the Fit Harvest™ program, which includes full plate options of 450 calories or less, a la carte selections of just 200 calories, 2-3 servings of fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats, whole grains, and moderate levels of sodium, fat, and sugars.

In a similar vein, ARAMARK Business Dining, which also provides health and wellness programs for workplace restaurants, has partnered with Cooking Light magazine to create healthy yet tasty menu options and provide "innovative workplace wellness initiatives", while Sysco, which sells, markets, and distributes food products to restaurants, healthcare and educational facilities, lodging establishments and other customers who prepare meals away from home, has developed eNutrition, an Internet-based program that allows users to nutritionally analyze products and recipes to create healthy menu options.

What can you do to promote better nutrition in your workplace? These tips from Your Wellness Advantage, a cooperative effort by the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and the National Business Group on Health, can help you get started:

  • Work with your food service providers and vendors to increase the number of healthy menu options.
  • Ask that entrees be revamped or developed to be lower in calories, either through recipe adjustments or smaller portions.
  • Offer smaller portion sizes of snack foods or dessert items.
  • Promote these healthier options in employee communications, from newsletters to signs in the break room or stickers in the vending machines.
  • Organize menu selections by stations, such as beverages, breakfast, grill, hot entrees, pasta/stir fry, salad bar, deli/sandwich/pizza, soup bar, to-go and desserts.

Simply offering healthy choices isn't enough. Encourage employees to make better nutrition choices by marketing lower-calorie selections with posters, banners, etc.; provide information about nutritional value by distributing health and nutrition brochures and posting information on your company web site; educate employees about proper portions of menu items; sponsor cooking demonstrations; publicize health-themed promotions (such as heart-healthy entrees during American Heart Month); let employees sample new menu items and products; and sponsor local farmers' markets.

And finally, in these cost-conscious days, motivation often comes through the pocketbook. Offer discounts, frequent buyer programs, coupons, and other incentives to encourage employees to meet their nutritional goals. In short, price to sell.

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