Chez Workplace: Study Links Teaching Kitchens to Good Employee Wellbeing and Health Behavior Outcomes

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cooking class

Photo: The Teaching Kitchen Collaborative evolved out of the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives® conference, shown here. Photo creative commons copyright courtesy Culinary Institute of America Leadership Programs. Acquired via Flickr.

A study investigating the feasibility of workplace teaching kitchens, and the outcomes that might result from integrating them with other types of health behavior interventions, may herald a new and important movement for employee wellbeing programs.

The Teaching Kitchen Collaborative — led by the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health — endeavors to promote teaching kitchens as “catalysts of enhanced personal and public health” across a variety of settings, including workplaces.

The study — led by Dr. David Eisenberg, Director of Culinary Nutrition at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and published in the Journal of Lifestyle Medicine — set out to determine the feasibility of an interdisciplinary teaching kitchen curriculum that includes…

  • nutrition education
  • hands-on cooking instruction
  • encouragement and resources to promote physical activity
  • mindfulness training, and
  • personalized health coaching

… and to measure the program’s behavioral and health outcomes.

At the completion of 14- and 16-week interventions participants showed statistically significant decreases in body weight, body mass index, waist circumference, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and total cholesterol.

Participants who completed the program also were more likely to engage in positive behaviors, such as cooking meals from scratch at home more often, relying on ready-made meals less often, reading nutrition labels on purchased foods more often, and feeling more confident in cooking.

The study had several limitations, as the researchers noted in their published article. The number of participants was small (40 all told) and the pool of potential participants was comprised of (non-culinary) employees of the Culinary Institute of America, which meant they had state-of-the-art teaching kitchen facilities available to them. The intervention was expensive, and many of the results weren’t statistically significant or sustained over 12 months of follow-up.

Models for teaching kitchens, in the workplace and in other settings, will continue to be refined and studied. The pilot study described here represents an encouraging first step. As Harvard wrote in its summary of the findings:

With dramatic increases in obesity and diabetes, the search is on for innovative strategies to change the paths of those living with, or at risk for developing these and other lifestyle-related chronic diseases. In conjunction with good medical guidance, holistic strategies are needed.

Dr. David Eisenberg may have tapped into one winning strategy with Teaching Kitchens—a kind of cooking laboratory that combines culinary instruction using healthful whole ingredients, nutrition education, exercise, mindfulness, and personalized health coaching.

 

Healthy Workplace Food Is Served, Not Force-Fed

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Healthy food on an office deskResistance to offering healthy workplace food options — whether it’s raised by cafeteria operators, vending machine operators, or company leaders — is often based on a myth that assumes employees demand unhealthy food, and don’t want healthy unprocessed food.

A new survey provides some evidence that it’s time we toss this myth down the garbage disposal. According to the 2017 Food and Health Survey, conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation:

  • 73% of college educated consumers and 51% of non-college educated consumers use nutrition information when eating out.
  • 76% are trying to avoid or limit sugars in their diet.
  • Healthfulness, along with taste and price, is a top driver of food purchasing decisions.
  • Women favor foods and beverages with no artificial ingredients.
  • 60% of those who regularly use nutrition info when eating out say it’s important that their food contains only natural ingredients.
  • The length of an ingredient list affects the perceived healthfulness of nutritionally identical products.

Overall, Americans say they take steps to eat healthy and understand the importance of expert nutrition guidance.

Undoubtedly, the Foundation brings food-industry bias to its positions. But that doesn’t necessarily invalidate its findings about increasing consumer demand for healthy food.

Other market surveys have had similar findings. A 2015 Workplace Food Insights survey by Sodexo, for example, found that eating healthy is “extremely” or “very important” to nearly 80% of surveyed workers.

I brought this point home in an article just published by Carol Harnett — employee benefits visionary — in Human Resources Executive Online…

Good food isn’t something you’re trying to convert employees to eat. It’s a need you’re seeking to accommodate.

Check out the article to get a taste of how the need for whole, fresh, well-prepared food has been met by at least one employer.

Wellness vs Revenue: Tossing My Cookies about Corporate Dining

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tray of food for workAs an employee wellness manager for a large company, I was given responsibility for dining services — cafeterias, catering, and vending machines — with the express goal of accelerating our commitment to providing healthier options.

Easier said than done.

A slew of challenges ensued, but most perplexing were those instances in which food service operations directly conflicted with wellness goals.

Converting Brown Baggers

We were hosting finalist meetings for food service vendors, and it came to light that our “participation rate”— the percentage of employees who regularly use our cafés for breakfast or lunch — wasn’t up to par. The standard in our region is about 35%, and we were well below that.

We attributed our low participation to our homebody culture and demographics that include a lot of likely “brown baggers” — employees who bring their lunch from home. Our facilities don’t have competition from nearby eateries that could’ve been drawing business away.

The vendor’s sales guy told us, “We can convert a lot of those brown baggers to café customers, so that they’re buying their lunch instead of bringing it.”

There was a long silence as our wellness-focused team conjured images of employees leaving their brown bags — with their simple sandwiches in zip-lock baggies, or leftover lasagna in Tupperware — sitting on their kitchen counter as they headed out to work in the morning with a pocketful of cash to spend at our café.

I looked at my boss and asked, “Do we want to convert brown baggers to café customers?”

The Other Side of “Nudging”

Our company needs to generate revenue in our cafés in order to keep them operating affordably for employees. On the other hand, research tells us that food prepared at home is likely to be more aligned with healthy eating compared to eating out (notwithstanding our efforts to offer plenty of healthy menu options). Eating home-cooked food is better for financial wellness, too.

We’ve faced other dilemmas: Several years ago, before it was fashionable, we started diverging the prices of “healthy” foods from the prices of foods considered unhealthy. The idea was to “nudge” customers to buy the more favorably priced healthier food. Each year, we raise prices, on average, according to the Consumer Price Index for Food (about 3% or 4% in recent years). We’d achieve the average increase by raising prices more for the so-called unhealthy food and less (or not at all) for the healthy food.

We were victims of our own success. Sales shifted from soda to bottled water, from fried food to salads, and from beef burgers to turkey burgers (this harkens back to a simpler time when experts agreed that lean meat was healthier than red meat).

The problem was that our margins decreased. We were making less “profit” because we’d nudged people to buy the least profitable food menu items. Don’t get me wrong, we hold true to the belief that we are not in the business of making money from employee cafeterias. But we all have budgets to meet.

Advocating for the Opposite

One more example: We have trays in most of our cafeterias, but for some reason they’re rarely used. A consultant observed this, noting that it was unusual. More importantly, he advised us that we could increase our “check average” (the amount of revenue earned on each purchase of a meal) by encouraging the use of trays.

Customers are limited by what they can hold in their hands, and using trays would allow them to pile on the food well beyond what their hunger level actually demanded.

Did we want to encourage trays, so that employees would buy more food than they wanted or needed? In most companies, the wellness manager would advocate for the exact opposite: Making trays less convenient in order to “make the healthiest choice the easiest choice.”

(The trayless strategy, you’ll be interested to note, has been refuted by Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, led by Brian Wansink.)

I’m proud to report that we’ve consistently opted for whatever we determined to most effectively serve the best interests of employees. Sometimes it served their nutritional wellbeing and sometimes their financial wellbeing. And sometimes it served their career wellbeing by assuring sustainability of good food at work. Sometimes it was all of the above.

Organizations are complex. It’s easy for consultants, vendors, and academics to sit in their home offices hollering at you about what you should do. But real jobs have real people, with real goals, real pressures, real personalities, real challenges, and real conflicts.

Seeing the big picture, and recognizing that it can be viewed from different angles, sometimes is the first step to success.

Community Cookbooks, and My Cake Counter-Culture Secrets Revealed

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healthy food at work

I was thrilled to read  Community Cookbooks Help Tell the Story of Canada’s Past in a recent edition of the Globe and Mail.

The brief article lays out the role crowdsourced recipe books have in painting a picture of a culture, bringing communities together, and even rallying contributors and readers around a cause.

As the article mentions at the end, community cookbooks are still alive…

Community cookbooks are worth flipping through if you come across a boxful at a garage or used book sale… You may find a current self-published book from a group connected to your own community.

Employee recipe books are a form of community cookbook. They help employees build community at the workplace and — in the context of the type of cookbooks Gig Goodies will produce, they help workplace health seekers rally around a more hospitable work environment.

For an example of how I used an employee cookbook for just this purpose, check out the new blog post Health Enhancement Systems was kind enough to allow me to guest-author: How to Counter the Workplace Cake Culture. It’s the follow-up to a post I recently published right here on Gig Goodies.

Make-Your-Own Fruit Cones — Fun and Yummy Alternative for Meetings and Events

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Make-your-own fruit cones (photo, below) are the perfect fresh-food option for workplace meetings and events.

They’re easy to serve, and attendees will love the novelty, the choices, and the refreshing sensation. And, unlike what may be served at, say, an ice cream social, your attendees will feel energized and ready to go after this delicious treat.

fruit and cones

Fruit cones: The perfect option for workplaces.

Washington Post Gets the Scoop on Office Candy Bowls

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candy bowlCandy bowls at work — social lubricant for some, diet disaster for others.

The Washington Post recently took a deep dive into office candy bowls, uncovering their influence over co-workers and citing some caloric implications, as well.

Some data points from the article:

We secretly tracked how quickly candy disappeared from a jar in The Post graphics department for 10 weeks beginning Nov. 1. During that time, people took nearly 30,000 calories’ worth.

 

The author, Post graphics reporter Bonnie Berkowitz, writes,

At least 26 people in The Post’s 700-person newsroom have help-yourself candy containers at their desks (as opposed to those who keep their own private stashes).

Berkowitz cites the desktop-candy-bowl research conducted by behavioral scientist/jester Brian Wansink, which found that the probability of dipping into the office candy bowl is influenced by…

  • Proximity to the bowl
  • Translucence of the container

But Berkowitz is more captivated by the social norms  candy bowls reveal. Why do people have candy bowls? What’s the personality profile of those willing to snag the last morsel? Was Forrest Gump’s mama right about life?

Check out the Post article for life-changing answers to these and other questions about office candy bowls.

My Nine Assumptions About Workplace Food-Sharing

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Employees at many workplaces have a big role in shaping their environment. Sometimes those environments can be harmful. Nowhere is this more clear-cut than in the environments employees — in many offices — shape via their nutritional and food-sharing practices.

I’m not talking about employee cafeterias and vending machines — food provided by employers. They’re important, but receive due attention. 

This is about employee-provided grub — a harder nut to crack.

As wellness professionals, it’s tempting to overlook the less-than-wholesome food shared at workplace birthday celebrations, the candy passed around at meetings, the treats at trainings, the potlucks, the chocolate that co-workers sell for their kids’ fundraisers, the “food days,” the desktop candy bowls, munchable business gifts and giveaways, breakfast donuts for the staff, leftover halloween candy, Friday ice cream socials, and so on. In fact, with a wink and a nod, we may sometimes enable this culture in our desire to buddy-up to co-workers.

Speaking of buddying up, let’s not forget sugary rewards doled out by managers — a demeaning ploy applied to school-children, and no better with workers.

My awareness about shared-food has been raised after listening to employees’ complaints about it or overhearing those who indulge while engaging in self-talk about lack of willpower, excess body weight, or plans for self-punishment. Unhealthy eating environments foster a culture of guilt. And guilt is fundamentally incompatible with wellbeing.

As I’ve chatted with employees and employers, my mention of the overabundance of indulgent food at work is met with knowing groans.

As a manager responsible for cafés, catering, micro markets, and vending machines at my own workplace, I’m fully aware of the behavioral economics manipulations we can use to make the healthy choice the easiest choice and the policies we can create to support healthy eating via the food channels under an employer’s control.

But I also know these efforts are for naught if candy, pastries, soda, and pizza are dangled in front of workers in every break room, displayed on credenzas along every aisle of cubicles, served at every event because “people will always come for free food,” and generally tempt employees everywhere they turn.

I’ll post more on this topic in the coming days and weeks, and explore strategies to understand and influence the pervasive sharing of unhealthy food. Throughout, I’ll challenge some of my own assumptions — and perhaps some of yours. For now, mine include:

  1. A lot of workers want to make healthier food choices.
  2. Acting as “food police” always backfires.
  3. No food is bad when consumed occasionally.
  4. More choice is rarely a successful strategy to support healthy eating goals.
  5. Employers aren’t obligated to provide unhealthy foods.
  6. Workplace eating touches multiple dimensions of wellbeing.
  7. Workers should never be shamed regarding their body weight, food choices, or anything else.
  8. Different channels of food at work — cafeterias, vending machines, food brought from home to share, treats and celebrations, catered events, farmers’ markets or local produce delivery — interact to create a nutritional milieu.
  9. Habits like desktop dining, skipping lunch, eating alone, and brown-bagging vs. buying are vital pieces of the workplace eating puzzle.

Rest assured I come to this conversation with no airs of self-righteousness. My personal weakness is sugar-free Red Bull sipped through a Twizzler. But I ain’t sharing.


Cake Culture… And My Next Best Thing for Employee Wellbeing

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A couple of years ago, I wrote that partnering with local farmers — via community-supported agriculture — could be the best wellness thing an employer can do. Based on the experience of at least one employer with 10,000+ office workers nationwide, I may have found my next best thing. 

A survey completed by employees at this firm showed “healthier food at meetings, in cafeterias, and in vending machines” to be the second most requested wellness offering (after gym membership discounts). And 30% of employees who reported having unhealthy eating habits said they were actively engaged in trying to improve them. Some employees want to eat healthier.

The employer had, years ago, dug into a bag of age-old merchandising tricks that had become trendy when some bestselling author dubbed them “behavioral economics”: pricing healthier food more attractively than unhealthy food and making the healthiest choices the easiest choice.

The behavioral economics nudges had some success, but there was another obstacle afoot for employees who wanted to make healthier food choices…

Eating healthy is not always easy for consumers during the work day, with a little over half finding it only “somewhat” to “not at all” easy…Most attempt to eat healthy, but encounter challenges along the way. Some backslide the rest of the day and continue to indulge and eat less healthy as a part of a more emotional cycle of guilt and reward. 

— Sodexo 2015 Workplace Food Insights

Free food is everywhere in offices and call centers. Sometimes it’s provided by employers, like not-so-refreshing refreshments served at long meetings and special events, or sweet treats used to reward workers the way you might use Milk Bones to reward a paper-trained labradoodle. 

But much of it is introduced and shared by co-workers. I’ve previously described workplaces flooded with cakes, candy, and other treats, and cited studies that coined the terms “food altars” (where leftovers and treats are reliably displayed) and “cake culture.”

The challenge this employer faced was how to meet the needs of employees seeking healthier choices and a healthier environment — without taking on the role of “food police.”

A pulse poll found that, when co-workers brought in treats, 23% of this company’s employees ignore them because they don’t fit into the respondents’ eating style, diet, or health concern; 9% sample some to be polite but “wish it wasn’t there”; 8% tend to overindulge and “feel gross after.”

Did I mention that some employees want to eat healthier?

When asked what type of foods they are most likely to bring to an office potluck, 32% of respondents from a separate poll of the same employees said they’d contribute an indulgent dessert; 15% said they’d bring “pizza and wings, or something like that”; only 16% said they’d bring a healthy dish; and 12% said it depended on their co-workers’ dietary concerns.

Not much can be concluded from informal poll data, but at first it may seem like there’s a reasonable match between employees that bring treats and those who consume treats. That’s not a problem if workers are only bringing in food, say, once every week or two. 

But “cake culture” isn’t about what happens once every week or two. It’s about what happens every day. That’s what makes it cake culture… and not just…you know…cake.

If the majority want to have their next slice of cake within arms’ reach all day every day.…what about those who don’t?

Remember that “choice” thing? Does it only apply to those who fall into a narrow majority?

Some will argue, “Who cares?! It’s a matter of personal will. Employees who don’t want unhealthy food don’t have to eat it!”

Did I say “some will argue”? Nix that. Most will. But this stance reflects an unfounded belief in willpower, which has little to do with behavior (or obesity, in case you’re interested), a lesson even many wellness professionals have not yet learned. 

Research has shown that people who demonstrate what might appear to be a high level of willpower generally are not exercising willpower at all, but in fact craft their environments in a way that supports specific behaviors. If anything, some researchers have said, naive faith in willpower reduces your chance of adopting a healthy behavior.

This employer endeavored to support the normalization of healthy food, so that the needs of employees seeking healthier choices, even if they weren’t a majority, were not drowned in a sea of cake, candy, cookies, pizza, and chips.

In an upcoming post, we’ll see how this employer leveraged a feel-good crowdsourced tactic to support employees when their own workplace food culture sometimes failed to do so.


Food at Work. It’s a Thing.

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I recently celebrated ten years at my current job.

I started in the thick of the holiday season. My first day, a co-worker came over to my cubicle to offer me a gooey chocolate confection she was serving off a piled-high tray. “Wow, what a classy holiday treat!” I thought.

Another co-worker left a tray of Italian cookies on the long credenza down the aisle. Then a couple of gifts came in from vendors — caramel-dipped popcorn from one, mixed nuts from the other — and they also were put on the credenza to share.

We had a big meeting where I was introduced, and a giant bowl of candy was passed around, for reasons unknown to me. It reminded me of my orientation the day prior, when the facilitator did an ice-breaker by asking us trivia questions about the company, and if you answered correctly he threw you — threw you! — a packet of M&Ms.

After the candy-bowl meeting, I was taken to lunch at the company cafeteria, where I enjoyed a good-sized serving of pork tenderloin with a side of fries. For a beverage, I stuck with water — you know, to keep it all healthy.

Holiday feasting and food-sharing are wonderful and important social traditions. Little did I know back in those days that the feasting had little to do with the holidays, and would ebb and flow — but mostly flow — for the next ten years.

It surprised and saddened me back then that, as I was introduced to co-workers as the new wellness manager, they sometimes felt the need to make an awkward joke about whatever food they had around at the time, assuming I was judging them for the muffin on their desk or the McDonald’s bag they were carrying.

But I wasn’t judging and never have. I’ve observed an abundance of edible goodies pervasive in the workplace — my workplace and others — and I’ve learned that it’s a force employees quietly contend with daily. But, indeed, it’s a force that challenges me — I like food, too — so far be it from me to judge anyone else.

Food at work. It’s a thing…for a lot of us. And that’s the topic of my new post, My Nine Assumptions About Workplace Food-Sharing — And Why They Matter to Employee Wellbeing. Please check it out.