Updated 05 July 2010

Fatal canteen food

Do companies and employers have a responsibility not only to supply their staff with food, but to make sure that the food that is for sale is nutritious and well-balanced?


Do companies and employers have a responsibility not only to supply their staff with food, but to make sure that the food that is for sale is nutritious and well-balanced?

The employer’s point of view
Many companies provide food for their employees and basically this is an excellent idea. After all, many employees, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, probably rely on the canteen meals for most of their daily food intake. In some companies, food forms part of the employees’ package and it is regarded as a right, not a privilege.

It makes good sense to ensure that the people working in a mine or factory get at least one decent meal a day. The provision of food improves productivity and lowers accident rates. So employers who provide meals quite legitimately regarded this policy as "something positive they are doing for their workers". They are also entitled to pat themselves on the back for being caring and going the extra mile for their staff.

You can imagine that employers who have gone to the trouble and expense to provide food for their staff, are not going to be thrilled to hear that they are actually doing their workers a disservice!

There is great, and understandable, resistance from the employers’ point of view to make any changes to meal plans. Employers often regard anyone who suggests that the meals served in the canteen are fattening and bad for the long-term health of their employees, as a heretic!

Make a suggestion that they should include food choices such as a low-fat meal, or a high-fibre snack, and you will be booted out so fast, you won’t know what’s hit you.

"Our staff will go on strike if we change the menu, " is an answer one hears rather often. So what can be done to ensure that employers don’t kill their workers with misguided kindness?

The employee’s point of view
Most employees probably think that the kilojoule-laden food, the chips, pies, stews swimming in fat, desserts topped with artificial cream and an endless array of cold drinks, are fabulous. And if the employers would dare to change the menu, the workers would probably feel they were being done out of a well-deserved right, and go on strike. Another possibility is that workers (the ones who can afford it), would send out for food if anyone tried to mess with their favourite tuck.

A hopeless situation? Yes, and No.

Some suggestions to employers and employees about canteen food

The following suggestions may help members of both sides to do something constructive about the "fatal food" that is being served in most canteens, cafeterias and snack bars.

If you are an employer, and you think you’d like to make positive changes to the menu served to your workers, then consult a dietician to help you work out healthy menus that are less clogged with fat, less fatal, and less fattening.

Once you have a balanced menu, sit down with the workers’ representatives, the shop stewards, and the supervisors, and discuss the alternatives with them. Ask these representatives to form discussion groups on the floor and to sound out the workers on how they feel about healthy food, and ask them what menu changes they would like to see.

If necessary, employ the dietician to give talks to groups of workers on an informal participation-basis about healthy diet and the long-term effects of poor eating habits. I believe that even workers who come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds can understand straightforward messages about food and health.

Give it a try, you may be surprised to discover that once the workers understand that you are not trying to remove a privilege, but are honestly concerned about their long-term well-being, and that the new menus will not cost less (they may even cost more!), but may prevent ill-health in later years, they too will be interested and supportive.

One way of making such a change in the menu, would be to inform the entire staff that from a certain date onward, the canteen will be serving one dish a day that is healthy and balanced, and that they are free to choose this "healthy alternative". Brightly coloured labels or placards with a simple health message, will also help workers to understand what the change is all about.

If on the other hand you are a worker who would like to be given the choice of eating low-fat foods rich in protective antioxidants, instead of artery-clogging goo, then canvass your co-workers and form an action group.

Once you have worked out a plan of action which will not antagonise your employer, then meet with management and put your proposals to them. It is important to let management know that you are not trying to cause trouble, or that you are ungrateful for the food they are providing, but that you are concerned about the welfare of your coworkers.

In the long run, the company will save money on doctor’s bills and disability payments if they provide good, wholesome food that contains sufficient fibre, vitamins and minerals. After all, prevention is better than cure.

(Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, updated July 2010)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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Healthy snack and lunch box ideas


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