What makes a great wellness program? Different institutions have different ideas about this. Some focus primarily on health, while others take a more expansive approach. Some do it by limiting “bad” choices, others by making “good” choices more appealing. Some measure success by pounds lost or number of exercise club members signed up. Others take a less defined approach and focus on morale factors.
There are many ways to approach wellness programs, and what you decide to do will be influenced strongly by what management or administration wants, what cooperation you get from other departments in your organization, what the makeup of your population is and what their expectations/limits of tolerance are.
Here are some suggestions culled from conversations with individuals in the onsite dining field who have had success with their own wellness programs…
People always respond better to initiatives where progress is clearly defined and results are easily understood. A wellness initiative that says it's about “wellness” without defining the term and outlining what constitutes an improvement is little more than lip service.
“A good way to incent healthy behavior is with a points program that allows people to tally their progress,” offers Leslee McGovern, national director of wellness for Sodexo. “If you record a thing, it has more impact.”
Support from the top administration or management at an organization is critical for any successful wellness program. To get this buy-in, emphasize the positive impact not just in the present but for the future.
“Management looks to affect the lives of employees,” says Salli Darden, assistant vice president for marketing with Aramark Business Dining. “A solid wellness program is a chance for them to show they are interested in taking care of their employees. Wellness is not just saving money. Management can look on it as ‘this is my legacy.’”
Of course, upper management is also valuable for its impact on behavior across the organization by setting an example. “When you have the lead executives in a workplace going to the café and making healthy choices, that is the biggest thing,” says Sodexo's McGovern. “That makes everyone more likely to follow their lead.”
“We've never been about stealth nutrition,” says Jon Plodzik, director of dining at the University of New Hampshire. “We've always believed that we can educate our customers to choose healthier options.”
So UNH Dining goes about its wellness mission by putting the positive over the negative when it comes to presenting food choices. “Taking stuff away doesn't work,” Plodzik says. “For example, originally when we introduced steel cut oatmeal as an option next to traditional oatmeal, few people chose it. But now, it is by far the most popular choice.”
A one-size-fits-all or generic approach to wellness rarely works because different people have different perceptions that are influenced by immediate concerns.
At Iowa State University, “we have our dietitian and nutrition intern go around campus and talk to student groups on different topics each month, with those topics targeted to specific and immediate concerns,” says Nancy Levandowski, director of dining services. “During finals time they may talk about caffeine and its effects because of all the caffeine consumption at that time.”
Aramark's Darden says different aspects of healthy eating appeal to different populations. For example, she suggests tagging some healthy choices as ‘brain food’ to appeal to more sedentary types.
Make it easier to eat healthy. Dining operations sometimes make the mistake of “checking boxes” (Do I have a salad bar? Do I have vegetarian options? Do I offer water and diet drinks?) and assume that satisfies the requirements of a healthy dining program. It doesn't if the easy defaults are still toward unhealthy behaviors.
For example, at the new Issaquah campus of Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, there are no combo meal options. “It's all a la carte because we feel that combos only encourage people to eat more than they might otherwise want to — in other words, it encourages them to overeat,” says Executive Chef Eric Eisenberg. “By offering food by individual components, people are more likely to buy only what they want to eat.”
In colleges, there are great opportunities for working with academic departments. Iowa State Dining, for example, has partnered with the food science department on a project to develop healthier versions of specific dishes that retain flavor. At UNH, a marketing class is exploring the effects of extending the school's Guiding Star dining hall healthy choice designation to retail environments.