A vegan office: How one workplace has moved to get healthier together

Carrie Clyne’s last job was in an office that feasted on a steady supply of junk food. Donuts in the mornings and cupcakes for staffers’ birthdays were the familiar routine.

But in January, when she took a position with nonprofit organization Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, she was pleasantly surprised by her new employer’s decidedly different attitude toward food.

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.

For Clyne, it was a relatively easy transition because she was already a vegan. But she still appreciated how devoted the whole team was to a plant-based diet.

“I feel like we all motivate and encourage each other,” Clyne said.

The staff at the District-based organization help one another enjoy the diet in a variety of ways: They exchange recipes, share their finds for tasty vegan dishes at lunch spots near the office, and take turns making breakfast smoothies for each other in the mornings.

PCRM’s strategy is a different twist on a familiar approach to workplace wellness. In recent years, many employers have been using team challenges or social activities to create incentives for exercising. At PCRM, the built-in community of co-workers is being leveraged to encourage staffers to improve the way they eat.

Adapting to a vegan office environment required varied levels of adjustment for PCRM’s 64 employees.

Levin said about one-third of staffers were already eating a fully vegan diet before coming to PCRM. Another third, Levin estimates, were “some of the way there,” perhaps eating a vegetarian diet. For the rest, the diet was likely a big lifestyle change.

The notification employees get when they’re hired is the only direct messaging they receive about the vegan dietary policy.

“There’s no proselytizing,” Levin said.

And if someone chooses not to eat vegan at home, there’s no pressure to change that. (Levin described their approach on this as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”)

Several employees say they have noticed positive health changes since they began working at PCRM and embracing the group’s approach to eating.

Jeanne Stuart McVey, PCRM’s media relations manager, said she never realized she was lactose intolerant until switching to veganism. And McVey used to satisfy her sweet tooth with cookies, but now craves fruit instead.

Ulka Agarwal, the chief medical officer, had eaten vegan before she came to PCRM. But she said her diet wasn’t always the healthiest version of veganism, because she didn’t always choose the most nutritious foods. (A french fry, after all, can be vegan.)

After having packed on 10 pounds in recent years, she lost seven pounds in seven weeks after arriving at PCRM. She said her co-workers played a big role in the change, because she could check out what they ordered at a restaurant or look over their shoulder at the lunch they brought from home.

“I could learn by example,” Agarwal said.

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.

PCRM recently expanded the study to include 10 Geico offices around the country, with the results to be published later this year.

They also train instructors through their Food for Life program to offer similar classes and cooking demonstrations at workplaces across the country. Even if participants don’t switch to veganism, the hope is to get more employees to adopt healthier eating strategies.

“Are we the food police? No,” Levin said. “It’s more about, ‘Here is the information, you can do what you want with this.’”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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