Not just a tick in a box

Kate Taylor reveals why workplace food matters

Nutrition should be an integral element of a workplace strategy, not just a tick box exercise in a procurement process by foodservice providers, argues Kate Taylor, account director and nutrition expert from Gather & Gather.

Nutrition has always been a tick box exercise. But it shouldn’t be. It has to be at the heart of foodservice in the workplace, but all too often caterers simply pay it lip service. Frequently caterers do not deliver nutrition effectively at all.

Ever since I joined the world of foodservice as a nutritionist Ð some five years ago Ð there have been countless requests for the same old healthy option, challenges to reduce salt, calorie counts on menus. It is almost akin to a drive to make people scared of eating and drinking. Given my knowledge and understanding of the subject matter it may seem surprising, but I’ve never seen the point of providing calories on menus.

Having data entry staff sit behind a desk and input the values of food into a system only gives an accurate figure if exactly the right ingredients are input, if the chef follows the recipe exactly, and if the employee serving it provides exactly the right portion to the customer. Let’s say all this goes according to plan. Where does that leave the well-being of our own staff, who are so often forced to serve what they’ve been told? How can we say we provide a healthy option or a calorie-controlled menu, but at the detriment of our own staff’s development and well-being? And what about those data entry staff and their well-being and ability to understand food and ensure the right product is being entered? In addition, all this effort to focus on calories will inevitably make the customer’s choice for them as they won’t focus on the food but on the number being shown.

In effect we are taking a one-size fits all, data-driven approach without proper thought and analysis to the impact of what we’re serving. It’s all good in a general, but rather ham-fisted kind of manner and therefore, nowhere near as effective as it should be.

Sales tenders have the bog standard “do you provide a healthy option as a menu item?” This depends on what you class as healthy really. If I spend two hours at the gym every day, my idea of healthy will be different to my colleague who doesn’t exercise and seldom leaves their desk. Consequently, what my body needs in terms of nutrition will be different too. How many times are healthy options advertised on the high street? I couldn’t tell you the last time I walked into a restaurant and saw ‘healthy option’ on the menu, so why is it different at work? Why mdon’t we just give everyone good, wholesome food that is nutritious and good to eat?

Food can do so much more than it does right now in the workplace. We spend more time at work now than ever before, and consume around a third of our daily energy requirements while being there, which surely means it’s the perfect platform to engage with our employees on well-being involving food, drink and being active.

Well-being has and will continue to be a buzzword for years to come. Corporates are starting to invest in staff well-being as it’s scientifically proven to drive productivity. From mindfulness, sleep pods, onsite gyms and emotional well-being programmes, the solutions are endless. Some are even running learning and development programmes on the above topics. With all of this happening though, what’s happened to food in the workplace? In many cases it’s still the same, three hot mains, two soups, one vegetarian, a hot dessert and a fried breakfast. Why haven’t we kept up with the rest?

Now responsible for my own commercial account, I can truly say that things can, and will change but it needs to be a collaborative effort. For my own specific client, health and well-being really unpinned their drive to change eating habits for their employees. It was an integral part of the tender process and so it was a natural move for me to take ownership of the account. But to achieve my client’s aims and to enable food and beverage to support employee working practices, firstly we need to understand what those habits and routines are. To achieve this, we need to become engrained in the culture of the organisation.

For those of us striving to provide something better, there’s not much point if the infrastructure doesn’t support it. Providing the most nutritious and exciting food is great, but if it’s in a basement with tired furniture and broken facilities then it’s just not going to work.  Working with the client’s well-being team is one of the best places to start and has certainly been a positive influencer over the last three months.

As well as making some key product changes and having a dedicated nutrition resource, we’ve started the process of educating our customers about real food. Whether it’s avocado and poached egg served as a breakfast option or a protein and dried fruit-based bar in a vending machine, well-being underpins our mutual strategy for at least the next three years. In fact one of the first collaborative spaces we’re creating is a joint initiative with the well-being team and onsite leisure provider to ensure those people who use the fitness centre have access to food, beverages, clothing and equipment to support their exercise routine.

The question to ask is this. If you are providing a food solution in the workplace that comes with a cheap price and a product with low nutritional quality (white bread, chips, pies, anything deep fried and from a freezer in most cases), is it worth providing it at all? If you’re giving people food, give them decent, healthy food Ð or don’t bother.

We now live in a world where many people have specific dietary requirements. Whether it’s out of personal choice or for medical reasons, the drive to support these eating habits is increasing and we need to run with it, or face the fact that people won’t use our cafes and restaurants. Customers need to feel confident that they can find food and beverages that support their health requirements no matter what time of the day or day of the week.

The leaders in this change are those doing something different. We as food service providers, need to stop being afraid to face up to these challenges, but start being honest about what we can provide, at what cost and why. If the best solution is to provide a great coffee with a quality sandwich, some fresh fruit and small selection of retail lines then so be it. It’s surely better to do a few things really well than be all things to all men badly.

Nutrition isn’t just about calories or about ticking a box to say you provide a healthy meal, it’s about the options available, the way they are cooked and served and the space in which they are consumed. That really impacts well-being. That’s proper nutrition.