Good Food at Work

Workplace Food Culture from Soup to Nuts: Video and Transcript

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In this video, I narrate a summary of articles I published about workplace food culture — especially “cake culture” — and I present solutions that not only support healthy eating, but also employee engagement, inclusiveness, connectedness, and a culture of health.


Hi, this is Bob Merberg, founder of Gig Goodies, which you can find at Today we’re talking about workplace food culture — from soup to nuts.

I had a bunch of articles I wanted to write about workplace food culture, and I especially wanted to address what’s come to be known as cake culture.

So many things to write, so little space on the internet. I published articles in a number of places on the web but I wanted to collect them here in this video. It’s an easy-to-digest…um digest… All you really need.

I will make references to several of the articles, and I’ll point you to where you can find links to those articles on

First… some table setting…

Nine Assumptions About Workplace Food Sharing

My initial article included my nine assumptions about workplace food sharing, which reflected some of my core beliefs about food in the workplace.

The Nine Assumptions article included some examples of how workplace leaders — managers, executives, and so forth — sometimes use treats to reward employees in a way that some may find disrespectful and counter to inclusiveness. I am among those “some.”

I referenced some tweets that reinforce this. This one noting how Mark C. Crowley — a leadership blogger who I have the utmost respect for — but talks about using bags of candy as a bribe for performance. 

And this article by Suzanne Lucas — a human resources blogger who I also have great respect for and I enjoy reading her articles.  While it’s not mentioned in the title, the article was very much about using food to incentivize productivity. These are just examples of how our attitudes about food are at risk of being distorted in the workplace.

I Love These Foods

After that first post, I reflected back a little bit. And I wrote another article called Marvelous Food, Beautiful Food, Glorious Food. In it I talked about my experience at a new job that I started during the holiday season. I wrote:

I’ve observed an unbridled abundance of edible goodies pervasive in the workplace — my workplace and others — and it’s a force in wellbeing that employees quietly contend with daily.


This blog post is a video transcript.

Different kinds of — let’s call them indulgent foods: I try to avoid the term junk food. Researchers call them high caloric density foods. But you know what we mean and it’s without judgment: Cake, cookies, candy, pastries …things like that… which can be pervasive in office settings.

I love those foods and I encourage people to eat those foods and to socialize around them. But, as you’ll see, sometimes, when they take over the culture, it can lead to disempowerment and feelings of guilt or lack of self-efficacy. Not good for employees or employers.

So I’m not talking about enjoying the occasional slice of birthday cake. I’m talking about cake culture — environments where these treats are around almost all the time, almost every day. If you’ve never seen one of these environments, let me assure you that many of us work in them every day.

Also, I’m not talking here about employee cafeterias or vending machines, which are fun topics but have been well covered elsewhere.

We As Employees Have Some Control

While we are often all too happy to identify the workplace environment problems caused by employers, and most of them are, here we’re talking about something that we as employees actually have some control over.

In the Cake Culture post, I  referred back to an earlier post about community supported agriculture — an article I’d written a couple of years prior after I had introduced worksite delivery from a CSA and how it may have been one of the best things I could do. Because I would rather help get fresh local produce on the tables of 10% of employees and their families rather than, say, the more typical wellness goal of getting 50% of employees doing some unwarranted health screening just so they can earn an incentive.

Back to this Cake Culture article. I’m not the first one to use this term cake culture. And I also made a reference to another term that I’ve seen some research on which is food altars. Not every workplace has these—but many do, especially offices and call centers—places around the office where food tends to be displayed and shared — always available: It could be leftover treats and refreshments for meetings. It could be baked products that co-workers bring in from home. It could be candy bars and cookies that people are trying to sell for their kids fundraisers.

Or, sometimes, as we’ve seen, it’s managers trying to buddy up to employees by blurring the line between immediate gratification and job satisfaction. It’s almost like the 21st century water cooler except now instead of gathering around water we’re gathering around these luscious treats.

Every Man For Himself

Anytime I talk about this type of thing there are always some people who get up in arms. Their objections fall into two categories:

They get very zealous about their misperception that you are restricting choice.

People get very offended, like, “How dare you say anything about the food in the workplace? Everyone’s entitled to choice.”

I’ve made the point that inviting healthier options into the workplace, as far as
I know, does not reduce choice.

What you encourage in the workplace doesn’t restrict choice. I’ve never told anyone what to eat or not eat. That’s absolutely your choice. But that doesn’t mean I have an obligation to promote or even support unhealthful options.   

Now, onto the 2nd objection…

This is what I call the “every man for himself” approach to well being and it’s very popular — this idea that, regardless of what pervades the environment and culture, no one is being forced to eat unhealthy food.

This objection is sad and lonely… and it disregards the evidence… “this idea of ‘well if so-and-so doesn’t want to eat that cake they don’t have to eat that cake.’”

They don’t have to. But this objection is premised in a belief in willpower… that everyone has total control over their behaviors and what they consume.

And there’s certainly evidence to contradict that. Willpower has very little to do with health. Except maybe to get people over some obstacles, especially around addictive behaviors. So I won’t say willpower has nothing to do with health. But its role is really overblown.

How To Keep Your Resolutions

I cited this New York Times article … While I’m not talking about “obesity” right now… The Times article indicated that we tend to blame obesity on willpower, but that willpower has very little to do with it. The Times referred in its headline to evidence that obesity is genetically related… but the article also emphasized that the environment plays a major role in obesity. And, I’ll argue that the environment really drives most of our health related behaviors.

I also cited this article from The Guardian with the headline, “How to keep your resolutions: clue… it’s not all about willpower.”

All the articles I’m referencing here are linked to from, and you’ll see that they’re not just the opinion of some health writer but are based on numerous scientific studies that support this position.

The next article that I wrote, I provided first-hand account on one little way that I’ve tried in my work to provide a counter-balance to cake culture. The article, “How to Counter the Workplace Cake Culture,” was published by  Health Enhancement Systems.

My friend and colleague there Dean Witherspoon,  founded this innovative wellness company Health Enhancement Systems. They produce a publication called “Well-Being Practitioner” and invited me to write this article for their publication and they also posted it on their blog.

And in this article I described — I wouldn’t call it a strategy but I’d say a tactic, in which we collected recipes for healthy foods from employees. We defined healthy food very broadly.

And, among the crowdsourced recipes, we embedded messages that encouraged employees to rally together and support each other around wholesome workplace food. So we embedded a very positive, inspiring message into an employee-created product.

Defeated By The Pervasive Presence of Treats

It acknowledged, and this really gets to the heart of the matter, that a lot of employees are seeking healthier food environments. Many are on a path to healthier eating — due to personal aspirations or sometimes for medical reasons — and to dangle treats in front of them all day is to ignore the needs of a sizable population that may be struggling. We had data to support this, and I hear every day from employees who feel defeated by the pervasive presence of so-called treats in the workplace.

I hope you’ll read the article and find out more about the unprecedented reception this employee recipe book got, and more about what went in to it’s creation, and how you can address cake culture at your workplace.

In the “Well-Being Practitioner” article, I was representing an employer, and I was trying to be very tactful. The reality is… if you are an employee wellness professional — or if you’re going into an office every day and you want to eat healthier or you want more choice — wherever you are on this…you know these types of things that deal with personal preferences and health… and the role of the employer and the employee… are complex.

Everyone wants to think that they’re simple. Vendors want you to think they’ve got simple solutions for sale. Workers sometimes assume their preferences represent the preferences of the entire workforce and want them to get top priority. Middle managers can’t see beyond personal political gain. And employers are often driven primarily by short-term financial outcomes.

Too Hot to Publish

So I wanted to share a little bit more of the complexities of it and I wrote another article called Outtakes and Insights from Workplace Cake Culture. These were just some fun things that I edited out of the article that I had submitted to “Well-Being Practitioner,” sometimes for space (like how we defined “healthy” for recipes) but also some content that was just too hot to print.

This included some of the comments from employees about the cake culture. And some of the influence of leadership.

I also took a final stab at trying to convince readers that “environment eats willpower for lunch.” Because this is the important thing in workplace wellbeing. In employee wellness we have a preoccupation with behavioral change programs. It’s really part of what’s held us back over the years: we can’t let go of our faith — and faith is all it is — in behavioral programs. Part of the reason for that is it’s easy for vendors to package behavioral programs and make money off of them, and they require very little of employers compared to changing the environment or changing the culture or changing the work itself.

. But behavioral programs really deal only with the symptoms. Eating healthfully in the workplace… is an environmental issue.

That’s the story. Or should I say… the stories. You can find a transcript of this video with links to all the articles I’ve mentioned at

And while you’re there, why not submit a recipe? Who knows? You may find your culinary creation in a future GigGoodies recipe book.

Author: Bob Merberg