Quest for healthy eating habits in the CA workplace

California’s doctors are pushing the new year forward with some freshly developed workplace nutrition standards that could potentially change the way state workers and their families “treat” themselves throughout 2012 and beyond.  

The 35,000-member California Medical Association, the doctors’ statewide lobbying and communications arm, has long sought better eating habits in California schools, offices and work spaces. Now, CMA’s Sacramento-based headquarters has decided to tackle the state’s nutrition issues at its own front door.

Rather than stocking ubiquitous vending machines with the familiar candy bars, cookies, chips and other heart-stopping treats, the CMA will provide its own employees with fresh, health-conscious fruit and vegetable-based snacks. In fact, the vending machine is being tossed out entirely. The association hopes the change catches on statewide.

“We’re always advocating for public health,” says CMA spokeswoman Molly Weedn. “This is a new year and with the introduction of new legislation and new laws, this is a good place to start.”

The decision for the entire CMA office to switch from sugary staples to natural nourishment has literally been an “organic” process.  What started as CEO Dustin Corcoran’s private interest in promoting a healthy lifestyle for his own family has slowly grown into a carefully thought-out investment within his work environment, too.

“First we did it at home and my kids really like it,” says Corcoran. “We want to set a healthy example. For the CMA, it just occurred to me that that’s part of what our mission is. It seems very logical that we ought to walk the walk.”

Once a week, the locally-based company Farm Fresh To You will be delivering fruit and vegetable baskets that are meant to encourage “free-range snacking” for CMA employees. The delivery service is widely available to many northern California home and business sites, offering a variety of options in quantity and frequency of delivery. Particular requests for certain kinds of shipments are possible, but are greatly based on seasonal availability, which has forced some culinary creativity.  

“It just looks cool,” adds Weedn. “We get a big basket of fresh new things in and wonder what we’re getting next. People get excited!”

But trying to get California’s growing waistline to trim down isn’t exactly a new item on the state’s menu.

In 2003, then-Sen. Deborah Ortiz developed the California Childhood Obesity Prevention Act that was intended to ban sodas, high fructose juices and other “sugar drinks” from all high school, middle and elementary school campus vending machines within the state. But in a watered-down version of itself, the act was approved into law the following year after high schools were made exempt from this new law.  

“We know that there have been efforts made in the past when it comes to promoting healthy eating,” says Weedn.  “And CMA actively works with other groups like the California Center for Public Health Advocacy to take a look at some of the existing legislative efforts.  We want to extend these kinds of ideas to other community members and organizations in the greater Capitol network. We want to challenge what’s possible.”

The prohibition of trans-fat, caloric menu labeling and even statewide requirements regarding individual food service handler registration are all consumption-related legislation created by California lawmakers just within the last few years.

Some may say that the litigious and social influence to eat better is stronger than ever. But the vending machine industry isn’t backing down to this kind of legal pressure. If anything they’re embracing it.

“It’s not surprising when some groups decide to collectively make healthy choices for their office,” says National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) spokeswoman Jackie Clark. “But there’s also been a huge movement for having foods available (in a vending machine) that are better for you.”

Clark is quick to point out that the vending industry wants people to be making more healthful choices as an afternoon snack. While trends for healthy eating come and go, NAMA has worked to form nationally-recognized nutrition standards including the “35-10-35” program, the “Balanced for Life” Initiative and the “Fit Pick Program” as just some of the ways that vending machine organizations can compete with consumers changing dietary needs.

“It’s not the machines themselves, it’s what you put in them,” continues Clark. “You can still have healthy living incorporated within the workplace, but there are lots of reasons to use vending machines to do so.”  

In fact, vending machines have come a long way.  Clark says today’s automatic dispensaries are the most “green option” available, noting that the majority of machines are as energy-efficient as ever.  They can properly store a wide variety of sustainable choices for the finicky palate. “We also have over 2,000 organizations who actively utilize our programs with over 30,000 machines in use,” says Clark. “That provides jobs for a lot of people.”

The CMA recognizes the role that vending machines and their suppliers can play within California’s struggling economy.  But by utilizing the proximity of local farms and the freshness and availability of their wares, CMA’s CEO believes its office is making the right choice.

“We consider this a long-term investment in our people,” adds Corcoran.  “It might cost more to have fresh, healthy food delivered than it would be to stock up on chips, cookies, candy and whatnot. Sometimes that’s what people go to because that’s all that’s available. But this is cost-effective for how we operate; it’s a value to offer these kinds of alternatives to our employees.”

This kind of inner-office change isn’t meant to fulfill any kind of collective resolution for the new year; it’s a small but serious step to change people’s lives. Some CMA employees are already seeing the results. Nick Birtcil is taking this new eating alternative to the next level and making it part of his everyday life. In the few months that he’s decided to make the change, Birtcil has already lost 40 pounds.

“I’ve been overweight my entire life,” sighs Birtcil. “As I got older, I started getting all of the problems that come with being a big guy – the heartburn, fatigue, high blood pressure, it all goes together. One day I went to give blood and I wasn’t allowed to, my blood pressure was too high. I couldn’t do it and I’m only 24. I finally realized that something has got to change. ”

After an “immediate” increase of healthier dietary choices, along with consistently tracking his caloric intake and regular trips to the gym, Birtcil is excited about his 2012. He even has a chart in the shape of his former self in his CMA workspace so that his coworkers can track his results. “Everybody has been really encouraging and it’s extremely helpful to see CMA moving in a direction that gets rid of the junk food, that moves towards fresher options,” says Birtcil.

“Just having the fruit there and not having a vending machine full of bad choices is extremely motivating. Our group always advocates healthy living. Now we’re talking the talk and walking the walk,” he said.

It’s not easy to ma
ke personal changes, let alone keep an entire office accountable, but it’s worth the effort.  

“It’s been exciting and inspirational to be on this journey,” concludes Corcoran. “To have the Capitol community rally around something like this … I think it’s cool.”

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