Cake Culture… And My Next Best Thing for Employee Wellbeing

in Uncategorized

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.


Partnering with Community Supported Agriculture May Be the Best Wellness Thing an Employer Can Do

in Commentary, Employee Wellness Programs, Uncategorized

Farm fresh vegetablesLast summer, I offered up my family as guinea pigs for a local Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). As the leader of an employee wellness program, I was considering creating a partnership with the CSA to have shares of their harvest delivered to employees directly at work, and I wanted to check it out myself, first. If you’re not familiar with how CSAs bring together residents and farmers to support local agriculture and promote fresh food, find out more about them here.

My family started getting our weekly deliveries of vegetables and fruit — eagerly checking-in with the earthy young workers at the local pick-up spot and collecting our garlic scapes, bok choy, berries, broccoli, peas, greens, corn, chard, melon, and so forth.

My epiphany occurred around week two of the 14-week summer season. We’d received a bunch of green peas in that week’s harvest. The pods were plump and firm and seemed ready to burst. Like I said, I’m no foodie, and I wasn’t sure whether to eat the pods. So I did. Raw. I had about six or seven, and soon felt like I was digesting an electric sander. The next night, we cooked them, which I thought might soften them up but instead just seemed to toughen the fibers. So I went to the CSA’s Facebook page and asked whether the pods were edible.

“All that hot weather,” they wrote back, “followed by the thunderstorms made those peas really GROW in the last week. So, although typically delicious and tender. if you don’t enjoy the shells a bit more fibrous, the peas themselves are still delicious…”

That muggy weather. Those storms! I remembered them from just five or six days earlier. As I held a plump pea pod in my hand, I was thunderstruck by how it had been affected by the same storm clouds that had flash flooded the roads during my commute and overflowed the roof gutters of my house. There was a direct line from the weather into the ground through the pea and into my body. We were connected.

Of course, this realization isn’t that novel — even for a city kid like me. After all, I’d planted gardens that were influenced by the environment. But something about this direct experience of it in my core food supply brought it home and made it real. And I related to those pea pods, and all the veggies that came after, in a way that I’d never related to food before.

At work, we went on to pilot delivery from the CSA to employees at four worksites. One hundred co-workers out of about 2500 participated. That may not sound like a lot, but we chose not to set participation goals and didn’t push the pilot aggressively. We weren’t trying to change anyone; we were providing employees with a convenience they’d been asking for.

I considered subsidizing employees’ purchases. In today’s world of wellness, however, a subsidy functions like an incentive — and health incentives are deadly to the success of employee wellness programs. But I may rethink this.

The primary objectives of the program were:

  • To support employees who seek convenient access to whole, fresh food.
  • To support local agriculture.

But what I hope may be a bonus, and the reason this small program might be the most important wellness program I’ve ever offered, is because it has the potential to help employees experience their relationship with food in a whole new way — just like I did with the peas (Caution, however: n=1!).

Most healthy eating promotions used today — calorie labeling and nutrition education, merchandising tactics like those promoted by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and behavioral interventions like Weight Watchers— haven’t been a match for the proliferation of unhealthful food, oversized portions, and appetites that, for whatever reason, are insatiable. Conventional approaches have their place, but none have achieved good results on their own. And, with the possible exception of mindful eating strategies, none get to the root of the matter by a change in folks’ relationship to food, potential that exists with a CSA partnership.

I believe we also experienced an unintended consequence: A social effect that stands to bolster an employee community that rallies around well-being. Not only do some participants choose to split their shares, teaming up to divvy their bounty and exchange recipes, but on the day the large boxes filled with each week’s share were delivered, there was a heightened level of energy, curiosity, and camaraderie amongst co-workers.

We expect participation to double this year. Our next step is to source some of our employee cafeteria menu items from the CSA. This will, of course, support local agriculture in an even bigger way. More importantly, it will make high quality food available to a larger population, and it will integrate with our CSA purchase program — cross promoting and allowing prospective participants to experience how local crops can be transformed into delicious meals.

And a little transformation can go a long way.


(My wellness colleagues needn’t fret about the usual… ROI, outcomes, and definitions of terms. We’re helping get fresh veggies onto the tables of employees and their families. No vendors, no registration, no incentives, no behavior change, no contracts. The simplicity makes it sublime.)