Nutrition Update: 'Get Fit' Expands From the Schools to the Workplace

As everyone in our industry is all too aware, obesity, health and wellness continue to grab headlines. Just about every day, survey after survey, study after study, analyzes, concludes and calculates just how much fatter our nation's citizens are becoming each year. More studies warn about the serious implications of the problem for everyone if we don't figure out a way to stop our collectively growing spread.

Operators with school accounts are quite familiar with the issue and have been forced to address it by offering a wider array of "better-for-you" products or risk losing the account. But many operators serving workplace accounts might think the issue doesn't affect them, concluding — "I don't have school accounts; I don't need to worry about that." The truth is that the focus on health and wellness is becoming important to all accounts — from offices and health care facilities to government locations and manufacturing sites — and operators interested in succeeding need to learn how to help them address this complex issue.

Automatic Merchandiser, in its "White Paper for Vending" published one year ago, identified getting up to speed on health and nutrition as one of the action steps needed for the vending industry to meet the needs of a changing consumer and new market forces. The article noted that while marketing healthy products is challenging, the demographic momentum of aging baby boomers and continued media focus on obesity are powerful forces.

Fortunately, the National Automatic Merchandising Association also recognized the importance of health and wellness issues and the threat it could potentially pose to our industry if not addressed, and created the "Balanced for Life" program. Balanced for Life (BFL) is a national health and wellness initiative designed to help combat rising obesity rates by communicating messages about the importance of a balanced diet and physical exercise.

Although the campaign initially focused on tools to help operators with school accounts, the campaign has since expanded into the workplace.

Operators wondering how to address the issue and looking for help might not be aware of the many resources available through the campaign, but from dietitians who can help create "better-for-you" menus to downloadable template wellness materials, NAMA has something that can help operators partner on health and wellness issues with their accounts.

And make no mistake: for a host of reasons, employers and consumers alike are focused more on health and wellness than ever, and simply sitting back and hoping the issue somehow just goes away could wind up putting you out of business.

SCHOOL ACCOUNTS ARE JUST THE BEGINNING

Most operators with school accounts are familiar with the importance of delivering health and wellness products and messages because the issue has been around in the school market for several years. Those that didn't introduce "better-for-you" products voluntarily have, in many instances, been forced to do so legislatively.

Now is an especially good time to share the many Balanced for Life campaign elements with schools because of a 2004 federal law effective this year requiring all schools across the country participating in subsidized federal school meal programs to develop policies that promote the health and wellness of students.

The federally-mandated school wellness programs are designed to motivate schools to create new ways to address the issue, and of particular note to operators is the requirement in the legislation that schools document how they will communicate nutrition and exercise messages to the students. In most cases school administrators have no clear idea of exactly how they can do this, or where they will find this information. Operators who present the BFL tools available will truly be seen as a valuable business partner working to be part of the solution, and will create enormous goodwill by effectively helping their accounts solve this problem.

ISSUE MOVES INTO THE WORKPLACE

But while the issue has been prominent in schools for several years, it is just beginning to move into the workplace. One reason is that along with reports indicating Americans are just getting fatter and fatter have come a stream of studies outlining the disease's associated health risks: diabetes, heart disease, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and stroke, just to name a few. And the tab for treating all these various conditions can be costly.

According to the Washington Business Group on Health, obesity alone costs employers approximately $12.7 billion each year in health care costs, medications, paid sick leave and life insurance policies. Employers are increasingly eyeing these costs and choosing instead to implement programs that protect their employees' health now, in an attempt to stave off all those potential medical conditions and associated costs later.

In addition, promoting programs that protect the health of the workforce just makes sense. An organization with healthy employees means higher employee morale, a better ability to attract and retain key people, and a more alert and productive workforce. Healthy workers are happier and more satisfied and in turn are more efficient as well.

CORPORATE WELLNESS GROWS

For many companies, the answer has been to introduce company-wide wellness programs which bring a number of benefits: wellness programs reduce absenteeism, on-the-job injuries, workers' compensation costs, and disability-management costs. They can also help reduce insurance premiums, reduce employee turnover, reduce employee absenteeism, increase productivity, increase employee satisfaction and motivation, and generally create an enhanced quality of life for its employees, both on and off the job.

In addition, wellness programs can deliver tangible savings to the company. According to a recent article in The Chicago Tribune, Pitney-Bowes estimates a $3 return on every $1 investment in employee health. The company shares the savings with the workforce, too — employees who agree to a health screening each year and adhere to set components of a healthy lifestyle through the company's Health Care University program can cut as much as $200 off their insurance premiums for the following year.

Naturally, a key component of any corporate wellness program means offering employees a variety of "better-for-you" choices in their vending and foodservice programs.

National operators like Aramark, Sodexho USA and Compass Group recognized this trend several years ago and have all created their own versions of "better-for-you" programs. Aramark has its "Just4You" program designed to help customers identify, purchase and enjoy healthier snacks and beverages in the workplace. "Just4U for Vending" includes more than 150 products, including: foods lower in fat; foods and drinks lower in carbohydrates; foods and drinks lower in calories, such as fruit cups and reduced-calorie juices; bottled water; and 100 percent juices.

Sodexho USA introduced its "Your Health Your Way, On The Go" vending program in 2005, designed to improve workplace dining by offering a wider variety of healthy snacks and beverages in vending machines that adhere to strict nutrition guidelines. Snack options have 200 calories or less per serving, 35 percent of calories or less from fat, 360 mg or less of sodium, at least 1 gram of dietary fiber, are low in saturated fat and trans fat free.

Canteen introduced its "Balanced Choices" program in 2004, which features machines where 100 percent of the offerings are considered "better-for-you." In addition, the machines can include a computerized center where customers have access to nutrition information on the foods, snacks and beverages available for purchase.

"BETTER FOR YOU" PROGRAMS REQUIRE SOME CUSTOMIZATION

Just as these "better-for-you" programs are not all the same, different accounts will most likely want to structure different vending and foodservice programs based on the buying habits of their workforce.

Some companies might want a higher percentage of healthier choices; other companies might not have the internal support necessary to make such an ambitious plan financially feasible. The key is to be flexible and convey to your account that you are prepared to work toward achieving a program that works for them.

But while the national operators all have established programs in place, how can smaller operators with more limited budgets still work with accounts to be part of the solution? For the many operators already struggling with the day-to-day operation of the business wondering how they can suddenly create health and wellness materials for their accounts, NAMA's Balanced for Life program can help.

BALANCED FOR LIFE EXPANDS TO WORKPLACE ACCOUNTS

To help members partner with B&I accounts, NAMA created a "Get Healthy" and "Fit Kit" that they can share with accounts to help create a customized wellness program. The kit is available at www.balancedforlife.net under the "Info for workplaces" link in the operator toolbox and provides NAMA client companies with information for starting a program along with materials they can reproduce in-house and distribute to employees. The Kit includes:

  • An overview on the importance of starting a "get fit" program and how it could affect a corporation's bottom line
  • The basic steps involved in starting a corporate health and fitness program
  • How to join more than 1,800 Globalfit gyms
  • The "Fitness Fundamentals" from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports
  • The basics of a fitness program
  • Suggested workout schedules
  • Controlling your weight
  • The benefits of being "fit"
  • Suggested games, activities and contests for getting employees active
  • The food pyramid and related nutritional information from the USDA, including suggested diets and recipes
  • Nutritional advice from campaign dietitian Lori Valencic
  • Point of sale promotional materials, including NAMA's SnackSmart brochure and poster

The kit also includes a host of links where members can go for more information and resources to help them implement and monitor their program.

Other Balanced for Life workplace tools to help operators are being added regularly, including a new Workplace Wellness Contest where teams can compete for prizes by walking their way to wellness and answering questions about health and nutrition. More details will be available at the Expo, so be sure to stay tuned for more details.

The good news for operators is that across the industry, manufacturers are coming together to offer a wider array of products that can help them meet their customers' demands, and other resources are available to help them address this issue as well.

As always, in the end it will be the operators who research the market and understand how to effectively respond to the ever-shifting landscape who will thrive. This means that the companies leading the way tomorrow will be the ones with the foresight today to recognize that health and wellness are here to stay.

RICHARD WYCKOFF, NCE, is former president of Aramark's refreshment services and business and industry facility service and is now a consultant to help packaged goods companies, equipment manufacturers and allied suppliers identify opportunities for building their brands and expanding operations to improve profits. He can be reached at 267-738-0726 or awyckoff1@hotmail.com.

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