Amy Joyce
Life at Work

Nibbling Away

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By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

I don't usually reveal my own workplace's issues in this space, but this week I must unload on you.

We have a counter in my department here at work where we put out nasty, tasty, odd and awesome snacks. And we call it "the trough."

Admit it: You all have one. It's that area, somewhere in your office, construction trailer or teachers' lounge where snacks appear. Girl Scout cookies, leftover Halloween candy, sheet cake for someone's birthday.

Work, for better or worse, feeds our bad-snacking habits. We all (don't tell me you don't!) can sniff a Thin Mint from several cubicles away. And even if we take our own fattening food into the office to give away, it's hard not to turn around and partake in that going-away cake for Sally.

Work already engenders many bad habits, but the food issue is a big one for people. Love those doughnuts at the morning meeting, hate that we eat those doughnuts at the morning meeting.

Sarah McPhie, a graphic designer who works in Dupont Circle, said it's hard to say no, or to even stop thinking about those office treats. Recently, a client brought in a huge bag of M&Ms. "It was opened, and then it just sits out," she said. "I'm eyeing it right now." And, she admitted, it was a good post-breakfast dessert at 10:30 in the morning.

McPhie and her co-workers once tried to go a little healthy with their snacks and ordered a huge case of Snackwell's cookies. There were too many of them, but everyone kept eating them anyway. "It was gross after a while," she said.

Even Cookie Monster is going through a sort of rehab, calling fruits and veggies "anytime" foods and cookies "sometimes" food. But office space makes it difficult to change those bad habits, no matter how hard we may be trying.

(Just recently, a few colleagues realized we'd run out of almonds, a new snack of choice to avoid the bad stuff. So what did we do? We partook of a neighbor's Oreos.)

Like McPhie, we all feel just a little gross after a day of hefty free snacks at work. With obesity issues constantly making the news and America considered the land of the unhealthy and unfit, it's no big surprise that the office food is finding itself under attack. That's why some groups are working to change cubicle snack time. "I think this whole issue boils down to, yes, much of this is a personal choice, but a healthy environment helps us fulfill our goals," said Suzanne Flint, director of the California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness. (Yes, leave it to California.) Flint said that when she worked at a hospital in Stanford, it got to a point where she did not want to go to birthday celebrations anymore because there was cake. "They would push it on you if you didn't want a piece," she said. And if you didn't take one, it seemed to be taken as a slight against the person whose birthday it was, she said.

The task force has been working to get employers and employees to stop bingeing on bad vending-machine food and turn those 9-to-5 hours into a healthier time. They have been encouraging people to put out a bowl of fresh produce rather than those M&Ms. Change the morning-meeting danishes to bagels or whole-grain bread. Encourage people to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Her task force is also working to change the way employers allow vending machines to be stocked, encouraging them to fade out the pink marshmallow Sno Balls and replace them with dried fruit and nuts.

"Work sites are such an important place to think about promoting healthy behaviors," Flint said. "We spend most of our waking hours on the job."

She is singing the praises of a service available in some areas that delivers fresh fruit to offices.

The FruitGuys, a company based in South San Francisco, started a service in 1998, delivering fresh fruit to workplaces. "During the dot-com boom, companies were providing all sorts of benefits for employees. A lot of those were really unhealthy benefits -- junk food, potato chips, caffeine chewable balls. We said, Let's try to build a business around something healthy in the office," said Chris Mittelstaedt, founder and chief executive.

The company delivers to almost 1,000 clients in the Bay area, and to offices in Boston, Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego. Mittelstaedt said the majority of the clients are professional services firms and law firms -- places where workers spend long stretches sitting at their desks. He said people in those situations find themselves much better off if they nosh on a juicy pear rather than chewy nougat.

I don't know about you, but I have an odd hankering for a fruit salad now.

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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