Businesses Using Lunchrooms To Help Workers Get Healthy

KANSAS CITY (November 22, 2010)—The reason for helping employees make healthy food choices is simple: Healthy employees have better attendance records, cost less to insure and contribute to higher workplace productivity.

Cerner isn’t flying solo on this. At the grab-and-go counter of the coffee shop in the Hallmark Cards headquarters, the prepackaged, low-cal, low-fat lunch entrees have little labels that tout them as healthy choices.

As another eat-right incentive, Cerner and Hallmark both provide price breaks on the designated healthiest entrees of the day.

Of course, companies such as these are the Mercedes-Benz of food service. For many American workers, the lunchroom is a table near some vending machines.

But even what’s in the vending machines is, in some businesses, changing: fewer candy bars, more apples.

How influential is the corporate push to eat right at work?

It’s too early to tell. For one thing, national industry data show that employee patronage of company food service has fallen, especially in the Midwest.

“Simply, there aren’t as many people in the offices,” said Tom Newcomb, who heads Corporate Dining Inc., a design and consulting firm based in Ohio.

The recession took a toll on head count.

“A great example would be the Sprint campus,” Newcomb said. “There are just not as many folks on the campus on any given day.”

Although job cuts and plant closings caused some of the decline in workplace dining, Newcomb said telecommuting, job-related traveling and generational shifts in eating styles also are contributing to fewer employees’ passing through the company lunch line.

Younger workers tend to be “grazers,” picking up selected items rather than buying fixed-plate dinners, food service providers are learning.

Nationally, workplace lunch “participation” — a measure of register rings compared with possible eaters — fell 6.6 percent from 2007 to 2009.

Breakfast participation fell less — down just 1.9 percent — according to the Society for Foodservice Management.

The organization of on-site dining providers said in its “2010 Industry Standards and Benchmark Comparisons” report that about 38 percent of potential users are eating lunch in company facilities, as are about 22 percent of potential breakfast eaters.

Fewer register rings and higher food prices make company food service a financial crapshoot. Last year, just less than 30 percent of participating companies did better than break even, the society’s survey found.

Overall, most workers are brown-bagging it, eating off site or going without, rather than eating in house, research indicates.

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