Good Food at Work

My Nine Assumptions About Workplace Food-Sharing

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office worker eating a donut

I’ve staked my career to evidence showing that the wellness industry’s emphasis on behavior change amounts to little more than victim-blaming in the context of organizations and jobs that are inherently harmful.

But I acknowledge that employees at many workplaces have a big role in shaping their environment. Sometimes those environments can be harmful. Nowhere is this more clear-cut than in the environments employees — in many offices — shape via their nutritional and food-sharing practices.

I’m not talking about employee cafeterias and vending machines — food provided by employers. They’re important, but receive due attention. 

This is about employee-provided grub — a harder nut to crack.

As wellness professionals, it’s tempting to overlook the less-than-wholesome food shared at workplace birthday celebrations, the candy passed around at meetings, the treats at trainings, the potlucks, the chocolate that co-workers sell for their kids’ fundraisers, the “food days,” the desktop candy bowls, munchable business gifts and giveaways, breakfast donuts for the staff, leftover halloween candy, Friday ice cream socials, and so on. In fact, with a wink and a nod, we may sometimes enable this culture in our desire to buddy-up to co-workers.

Speaking of buddying up, let’s not forget sugary rewards doled out by managers — a demeaning ploy applied to school-children, and no better with workers.

My awareness about shared-food has been raised after listening to employees’ complaints about it or overhearing those who indulge while engaging in self-talk about lack of willpower, excess body weight, or plans for self-punishment. Unhealthy eating environments foster a culture of guilt. And guilt is fundamentally incompatible with wellbeing.

As I’ve chatted with employees and employers, my mention of the overabundance of indulgent food at work is met with knowing groans.

As a manager responsible for cafés, catering, micro markets, and vending machines at my own workplace, I’m fully aware of the behavioral economics manipulations we can use to make the healthy choice the easiest choice and the policies we can create to support healthy eating via the food channels under an employer’s control.

But I also know these efforts are for naught if candy, pastries, soda, and pizza are dangled in front of workers in every break room, displayed on credenzas along every aisle of cubicles, served at every event because “people will always come for free food,” and generally tempt employees everywhere they turn.

I’ll post more on this topic in the coming days and weeks, and explore strategies to understand and influence the pervasive sharing of unhealthy food. Throughout, I’ll challenge some of my own assumptions — and perhaps some of yours. For now, mine include:

  1. A lot of workers want to make healthier food choices.
  2. Acting as “food police” always backfires.
  3. No food is bad when consumed occasionally.
  4. More choice is rarely a successful strategy to support healthy eating goals.
  5. Employers aren’t obligated to provide unhealthy foods.
  6. Workplace eating touches multiple dimensions of wellbeing.
  7. Workers should never be shamed regarding their body weight, food choices, or anything else.
  8. Different channels of food at work — cafeterias, vending machines, food brought from home to share, treats and celebrations, catered events, farmers’ markets or local produce delivery — interact to create a nutritional milieu.
  9. Habits like desktop dining, skipping lunch, eating alone, and brown-bagging vs. buying are vital pieces of the the workplace eating puzzle.

Rest assured I come to this conversation with no airs of self-righteousness. My personal weakness is sugar-free Red Bull sipped through a Twizzler. But I ain’t sharing.



Author: Bob Merberg