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.

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.