Employers take steps to create healthier workplace environments

WILLMAR -- A year ago, a catered lunch at Affiliated Community Medical Centers might have been a salad, sandwich, bowl of soup and dessert. At a noon meeting last week, Andrea Carruthers had half a sandwich and a cup of soup. The only beverage se...

West Central Industries
West Central Industries food service manager Warren Sundstrom drew up a plan for the agency to offer healthier choices in its cafeteria where meals are made and served daily to staff and clients. Changes have been made in the buffet line and also in their vending machines. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- A year ago, a catered lunch at Affiliated Community Medical Centers might have been a salad, sandwich, bowl of soup and dessert.

At a noon meeting last week, Andrea Carruthers had half a sandwich and a cup of soup. The only beverage served was water. There was no dessert, no juice, no soda.

ACMC is among a handful of local employers taking steps to trim calories and add choices that bring more wellness into the work setting.

"It was just changing the environment and accommodating employees -- trying to make life healthier," said Carruthers, care improvement coordinator for the regional multi-specialty health network.

BobbiJo Berg, a health educator with Kandiyohi County Public Health, wants to see more employers inspired to do something similar.


Berg works with SHIP, the Statewide Health Improvement Program whose aim is to foster long-lasting policy and environmental changes to reduce the burden of chronic disease.

For better or worse, workplaces have an impact on health-related behaviors, Berg said. "People are generally there all day. A lot of the eating habits are less healthy. They're inactive, sitting at a desk all day."

At the end of the day, instead of taking a walk or preparing a meal with fresh vegetables, they're often too tired or stressed, she said. "That makes them not want to do anything after work."

But what if the environment made it easier to make more healthful choices at work?

Earlier this year Kandiyohi County SHIP awarded $9,000 in mini-grants to do just that.

"The goal was getting to where people are instead of having them come to you," Berg said. "We really wanted to look at changing some policies or making some permanent changes."

For ACMC, the grant was a welcome opportunity, Carruthers said. "We decided we were just going to make it happen. We were hoping a little bit of environmental change would be readily accepted by providers and staff, and it was."

Because many meetings at the medical clinic take place over lunch, one of the first changes was switching to catered meals that were lighter and lower in calories, with smaller portions.


The vending machines underwent a makeover. Regular chips and snacks were swapped for lower-fat baked chips and other more healthful options. Pop machines were stocked with more water, more diet soda and smaller juices.

In a careful bit of strategy, the most healthful items were placed at eye level and marked with stickers "so that they would be the easy choice to make, hopefully," Carruthers said.

West Central Industries, another SHIP mini-grant recipient, had a different set of challenges.

The agency has its own cafeteria where meals are made and served daily to staff and clients. How could it incorporate changes that were both feasible and healthful?

Warren Sundstrom, food service manager, sat down and drew up a list: fruit bowls, vegetable plates, low-fat cupcakes.

The cafeteria now has a weekly Healthy Wednesday. "We don't turn the fryer on that day," Sundstrom said. "We have baked fish, stir fries, chef's salads."

Vending machines have been restocked to include more low-fat, low-calorie choices, he said.

To encourage more physical activity during the work day, both West Central Industries and ACMC created maps of neighborhood walking routes. If it's raining or too cold to go outdoors, staff and clients at West Central Industries can walk in the warehouse or use a company treadmill.


ACMC developed a stairwell walking program that has proved especially beneficial for office staff who often are at their desks all day, Carruthers said. "It only takes 10 minutes, and 10 minutes can make a difference in your day."

Even a short exercise break can help workers be more productive, as well as help them be active, Berg said. "It's good when employers make some of these changes."

For some, behavior changes happen slowly, Sundstrom admitted. "It's kind of like leading a horse to water. You can't make him drink," he said. "We are trying. Some of our staff definitely loves the healthier stuff."

But the agency did not have a wellness program before and decided it was time to take action, said Jamin Johnson, director of the Resource Center Program at West Central Industries.

"We're always talking about how we can all be more active and make good choices," she said. "Many of us are sitting at our desks all day long."

The mini-grant "allowed us to make it a priority," she said.

"It really did help," Carruthers agreed. "We hope we can just continue the effort and build upon it."

The West Central Industries wellness program has raised awareness about better choices, Johnson said.

"It basically reinforces what we talk about in tangible ways," she said. "That's the whole idea. It's about creating conscious healthy options and encouraging people to take time to think about what would be the best things for them. And from a business perspective, you're going to ultimately save money by having a healthier staff."

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