Benefits, HR Management

How Far Can Employers Go In Mandating What Employees Eat?

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I’ve yet to talk with someone about employee wellness without hearing about how an employer allows — if not actually provides — donuts or cupcakes or something similar at meetings.

The underlying message is this: the employer can’t be very serious about wellness if they’re still offering such junk food regularly.

I don’t disagree, but how far is too far? The comments on a post about junk food-free workplaces suggests barring people from bringing in their own food is simply a bridge too far.

Barring all but vegan choices

Knowing this, I wonder how people will feel about the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s (PCRM) decision to bar anything but vegan fare in its office?

For those unfamiliar with a vegan diet, it shuns all animal products, including eggs and butter. Today, 2 percent of Americans consider themselves to be vegan, according to a Gallup Poll, with Bill Clinton the most famous among them.

A Washington Post article explains PCRM’s thinking:

PCRM has an office policy mandating that only vegan food may be eaten in its office. The organization, which advocates for healthy eating, preventive medicine and ethical clinical research, is so committed to the rule that it notifies prospective employees of the policy when they receive an offer letter for a job.

PCRM decided to go vegan for a simple reason.

“We want to practice what we preach,’ said Susan Levin, the group’s director of nutrition education.”

Similar to tobacco-free policies

In some ways, PCRM’s vegan policy is similar to tobacco-free workplace policies. PCRM dictates what happens on campus, but not off. In that respect they’re setting policies they feel best support their mission and goals.

Still, being vegan, even if only before 6, assumes an interest in being vegan and a willingness to do the work.

A vegan diet is one of the more restrictive diets. The health benefits associated with it depend on eating mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. And unlike with tobacco users, being non-vegan doesn’t impact the health of your co-workers.

PCRM is doing more than practicing what it preaches. According to the Post article, they’re helping others make the shift to a vegan diet, too, and studying the impact.

PCRM has also piloted vegan eating programs at other workplaces in the Washington area. In one instance, they worked with a group of employees at Geico’s Chevy Chase headquarters. The nonprofit asked the insurance group to adopt a vegan diet and offered them weekly instruction on how to make healthy, tasty and cost-effective vegan choices. After 22 weeks, they compared employees in that group to Geico employees who hadn’t received the training. The vegan group lost more weight, reported improved physical health and said they saw a decrease in food costs.”

Where do you draw the line?

Even with the pilots, it’s unlikely PCRM’s policy will be widely adopted. It seems unique to their culture and perhaps their population. (At PCRM, one-third of employees already were vegans and another third were vegetarians.)

So the policy question is — where is the line when it comes to mandating what employees eat?

Employers already have many ways to encourage our eating better. They can subsidize weight management programs, lower premiums for hitting certain biometrics, run nutrition and cooking classes. They can discount healthier food items in the cafeteria, bring farmers markets to work, use display tricks to drive up purchases of healthy items. They can even control what’s available in those cafeterias (and the vending machines).

For me, this means the line is drawn on requiring employees to adopt a specific diet, especially a diet practiced by so few and with so many requirements.

What about you? Where is the line drawn?

This was originally published on Fran Melmed’s free-range communication blog.

Fran Melmed is an award-winning HR communications consultant specializing in workplace wellness and health care consumerism. Prior to founding context communication consulting llc context communication, Fran worked at Hewitt Associates in their Talent and Organizational Change and Communication practices in the U.S. and U.K. Contact her at fran@contextcommunication.com, and follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/femelmed.
  • Crystal Spraggins

    Hello Fran!

    Wow.

    Well, if my employer wants to cook it and put it in front of me, then heck, I’ll eat it. But if I have to buy special ingredients and cook them a certain way, I’m not liking this.

    Things sure have changed since that doctor was fired for banning donuts in the office and adopting the slogan “America Dies on Dunkins” http://www.cleveland.com/nation/index.ssf/2009/08/florida_doctor_fired_over_doug.html.

    When did Bill Clinton become a vegan?

    • http://twitter.com/femelmed fran melmed

      Hi Crystal.

      Now there’s an idea, teach people how to cook. IDEO was after this for awhile, and now new services are providing everything from instruction to delivery.

      Somehow I missed the doctor banning donuts. (Where have I been?) But Clinton became a vegan after he had a stent put in, sometime in 2010, I think.

      f