Foods Good for the Soul—and the Budget

By Adrienne Fox Oct 1, 2010
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October coverBudgets can thwart HR professionals’ intentions to provide employees with healthful food choices. "Foods containing refined simple carbohydrates are definitely cheaper, but they decrease productivity because they don’t level the blood sugars, causing the 3 p.m. ‘crash,’ " says Mai Trinh-Joubert, a certified holistic health counselor.

Trinh-Joubert, owner of Mai Health Now LLC in Alexandria, Va., analyzes the nutritional value of food for corporate clients and helps purchasers come up with healthful alternatives within their budgets. Recently, she analyzed the staff lunches at a large hotel group and found that they needed more complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice, sweet potatoes and steamed vegetables instead of simple carbs such as white rice and white potatoes.

"Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest than simple carbs, so they keep your blood sugar level longer and keep you focused, and that’s what you want from employees," she explains.

The hotel’s "food purchaser had a budget, but we found simple ways to save money, like providing water with lemon instead of endless sodas, or steamed broccoli without the cheese, or inexpensive oil-and-vinegar dressing instead of high-fat, high-cost salad dressings. Those savings can make room in the budget for highly nutritious items, such as quinoa grain."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, private-sector employers’ average health care costs nearly doubled from $1.09 per employee per hour worked in March 2000 to $2.08 in March 2010. So, paying for healthful food on the front end can save on back-end costs associated with health problems—such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease—brought on by poor eating habits, Trinh-Joubert says.

If managers in more companies ask vendors to replace processed snack foods with healthful options, vendors will be more likely to provide them within budget. The Mayo Clinic operates cafeterias in two of its health facilities in Arizona. Three years ago, its HR professionals began pressing vendors for healthful options. "It is an ongoing challenge," says Robert McGriff, HR analyst. "Each time a vendor contract comes up for renewal, we ask that vendor to bring healthy choices to the table. We specifically chose our new vendor because it is committed to working with local farms. We had to negotiate for better bread options, low-salt alternatives."

To encourage employee participation, Mayo—underscoring the "live well" brand of its wellness efforts—introduced a "live well" meal of the day in the cafeteria. "We indicate all the sodium, fat and calorie counts for all the meals and introduce one meal that is low in all those areas," McGriff says. "We incentivize employees by giving them a ‘buy 10 meals, get one free’ card."

Of the cards available to Mayo’s 5,000 employees in Arizona, 1,000 cards are in circulation at any given time, McGriff says. In June, Mayo sold almost 6,000 "live well" meals, representing a 25 percent share of all lunches and dinners for the public and the staff. It also sold 1,500 "live well" breakfast items the same month.

"We were skeptical in the beginning to think people would actually select the healthier choice when the full-fat ones are sold right next to it for the same price," McGriff says. "We were so pleasantly surprised when the sales took off. There is a real desire among employees to make the right choices."

Assurant, a New York-based insurance and asset management firm, found similar results after initial hesitance among employees in its U.S. offices. At first, directors were concerned that they weren’t going to make money on the healthful items, but, in fact, "they are making more" on those items, says Sheila Sweeney, vice president of benefits, who adds that the healthful items are labeled for easy identification.

Elisa Mendel, national vice president, HealthWorks and Product Innovation at Kaiser Permanente, says nutritional labels and stickers help employees make better choices. "Most vendors and caterers have the ability to put nutritional data on the food if you ask them," she says. "If you know the macaroni and cheese is 1,000 calories, then you are less likely to get it. Or, if the labels show that the veggie burger is healthier than the Caesar salad, then the employee can make informed choices."

Garry Lindsay, senior program officer at Partnership for Prevention, advises HR professionals to offer free samples of the food to drum up excitement and to show employees that it tastes good in addition to being healthful.

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