How Can Employers Help Employees Make Healthy Food Choices?
Recently, I was invited by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce to speak on a panel for its Health Means Business day in Georgia. An initiative of the US Chamber Foundation in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Health Means Business is a two-year campaign to foster business engagement in community wellness.
I. LOVE. THIS.
As a business owner, I believe wholeheartedly—because I’ve witnessed it firsthand —that there is a strong snowball effect when it comes to health and wellness. Better health leads to better community, which leads to a healthier business, which leads to better health. The magnifying effect is almost exponential.
Why Health Matters to Employers
Healthier employees are happier employees. They’re happier at home and at work. There is less conflict in the workplace and more harmony among happy employees, who are also more engaged in their community.
Community engagement and relationship give meaning and context to our lives. Employees who are more engaged in community outside of work are more engaged in their community at work. Happier, more engaged employees are more productive employees, and their contributions and productivity are more effective and relevant. They represent their company better to customers and stakeholders. They make their company stronger in the market. Healthy, happy, engaged employees are not just more productive and effective, they also help elevate the health and wellness of those around them, which, over time, multiples the overall health of other employees AND their company.
It’s simple and foundational, but it’s easy to overlook: health, wellness and happiness of employees matter to the success of a business.
Food is Foundational
Obviously there are many aspects of health, but for me it all starts with food. Food is the foundation of health. We’ve all heard the adage, “You are what you eat.” Slow Food Founder Carlo Petrini says it this way: “Food is the only thing you will ever buy that literally becomes who you are.” What you choose to eat becomes your body, your muscles, your bones, your senses, your nervous system, your brain. Nothing matters more to our overall health than what we eat.
So how do employers encourage employees to make healthier food choices? Here are a few of my ideas:
1) Make healthy food choices the only choices in the workplace.
Replace candy bowls with overflowing bowls of fresh, seasonal, preferably organic fruit. When staff members are hungry, bored or anxious, you are encouraging them to reach for a fresh peach…or apple, or fig, or orange, depending on the season. This is a snack with impact: nutrition, fiber, and vitality. At our office we follow the seasons very closely. This keeps flavors interesting and connects us to the patterns of nature. In the winter, we follow the citrus harvest from southern Florida to southern Georgia, tasting the different varieties and terroirs along the way. Same with peaches and other stone fruits—we move from “free stones” to “cling stone” varieties. We’re a food business, so this has the double benefit of helping to educate and fine-tune our palates.
When lunch is catered, make sure it’s healthy. Offer bottled water instead of soda, and herbal teas along with coffee. Make healthy food the norm. Keep high-protein items like nuts or edamame around as additional snacks. Who doesn’t love an apple with almond butter? Make it easy for employees to reach for things that will sustain and nourish them.
2) Model good food choices.
Leaders and business owners need to be aware that just as they are modeling appropriate business behaviors for their staff and employees, they are also modeling lifestyle choices, especially around health and wellness. At lunch, choose dishes that will boost your energy and carry you through the afternoon, rather than foods that will make you feel sluggish and drained. Be the first to reach for the fresh apple. Talk about how delicious it is. Encourage others to try it. Educate yourself on the varieties of fruits and vegetables and their various nutritional contributions, then share this information with your colleagues in the place of standard small talk. Get the people around you to think about their food choices because of the good choices they see you making.
3) Make healthy food a part of the conversation.
At staff meetings, ask trivia questions that relate to healthy food and lifestyle choices (i.e. which is more of a super food: kale or blueberries?). Invite health and wellness coaches into the office for lunch-and-learns. At PeachDish, we offer lunch-and-learns with our Culinary Director, a professionally trained chef, AND our Registered Dietitian. Together, they present a full story of not just what to eat, but also how to prepare it easily.
Initiate healthy food challenges around the office. It could be anything from observing Meatless Mondays in May to Fish on Fridays in February to a raw food, vegan challenge for the month of July. Make healthy eating an essential part of your corporate culture.
4) Encourage employees to cook.
Cooking with whole, fresh foods is an essential part of health. It also has the added benefit of being a relaxing, creative activity. Incorporate cook-offs into team-building exercises. Encourage employees to share healthy, easy recipes with one another. Sponsor a community cookbook for your business. For incentives and prizes, give healthy whole foods that encourage cooking, such as meal-kits or a produce basket. Host a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) drop at your office. Work with a meal-kit delivery service such as PeachDish to give special pricing to your employees.
5) Choose organic produce, proteins and dairy, and encourage your employees to do the same.
A healthy community translates to a healthy environment. In addition to toxin-free food, organic agriculture creates healthy pockets of biodiversity around the planet, reduces agricultural pollution such as pesticides and fertilizer run-offs, and helps to sequester carbon emission. Educate yourself and your staff on the importance of organics. A great place to start is with the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists.
6) Indulgence is okay, but choose REAL ingredients.
Don’t make healthy food a dogma. Dogma creates rebellion. Breaking the rules is fine as long as we acknowledge indulgences for what they are. Celebrate birthdays or other occasions with cake, but make it the best-quality cake you can buy with real buttercream icing - a true indulgence! Talk about the quality of the cake and what a treat it is. If you must have chocolate in the office, make it extremely high quality: fair trade, bean-to-bar. At our office, we are big fans of Cacao Atlanta’s daily dose. It’s a 0.25 ounce bite of dark chocolate, specially formulated to maximize the health benefits of chocolate.
Most lasting change happens incrementally. Slowly but surely - by making it easy for our employees to make healthy food choices; by making daily, deliberate and intentional decisions that encourage healthy food choices for ourselves and our staff; by making healthy food a part of the conversation; by encouraging our employees to cook,; by educating ourselves on the importance of organics; and by making room for indulgences, employers can encourage employees to make healthier food choices and, with any luck, help get the snowball rolling to a healthier, happier, more successful workforce.