Taste of Things To Come

By Carol Harnett/Benefits Columnist

One of the biggest challenges for human resource executives when it comes to providing food at the workplace is to bridge the HR and corporate-purchasing silos, and seamlessly integrate the offerings with the company's employee health and benefits strategy. While there are multiple steps involved in developing a corporate-food approach, three trends may define the future: the bubble-up strategy, treating employees like guests and partnering with farmers.

The bubble-up strategy. Tom O'Connor, the owner of Seattle-based Market Fresh Fruit, caught my attention when he talked with me about how his business receives most of its referrals. O'Connor is a biologist with a passion for providing employers and their employees with fresh fruit at work (an alternative for small employers without on-site cafeterias). About 20 percent of his business comes from CEOs who are fit and healthy, and want the same for their employees. The remaining referrals "bubble up" from employees on the ground floor of the company who want an alternative to the candy dishes and other food options at work.

You can gain an understanding of what your employees want through employee surveys that include one free-form question: What is one thing our company can do that would improve your health? And then be prepared to read, summarize and respond to the most common recommendations. It turns out fresh, whole fruit available at work is often one of the suggestions.

Treat employees like guests. Victoria Vega, the vice president of corporate culinary group operations at Unidine Corporate Culinary Group, refers to employees as guests. Her stealth approach to providing food that tastes good and is healthful involves asking employees to sample various recipes before they're placed on the café menu. When workers see the items they selected in the cafeteria, they are more likely to purchase them.

And, as much as Vega wants to see workers make good selections, she recommends that employers offer choice. She points out that the café grill is the largest revenue driver, so it shouldn't be abandoned -- but, you can offer employees hand-cut sweet potato fries alongside the usual choices.

Partner with local farmers. Terry Walters is a cookbook author who is one of the leaders of the clean-eating movement. She is a proponent of bringing farmers and employers together through a community-supported agriculture arrangement. It can be as simple for employers as allowing local farmers to sell produce shares to their employees and offering weekly pick-up at the worksite. But it can also go one step farther when the employer's cafeteria vendor also participates in the CSA. Since the on-site café is using locally sourced food, the offerings are fresh, flavorful and often less expensive.

Whether HR executives lead small or large organizations, they can influence the type of food available at work. No matter the direction companies choose, they should make certain that their approach to food matches their approach to employee benefits and well-being.

Carol Harnett, an expert in the field of employee benefits, can be emailed via http://about.me/carolharnett.

Mar 31, 2015
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