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Small Business Bakes Wellness Into Its Workforce

Many small businesses are wondering how to have an impact on employee health and productivity. One Oregon company is now teaching its employees tips for healthy eating and offering discounts on local fresh produce.

May 2, 2013

Many small businesses are interested in creating opportunities for workers to improve their health, but they don't know where to start, recent research shows.

One small firm based in Portland, Oregon, is taking the first step by teaching its employees tips for healthy eating and offering discounts on local fresh produce.

Bridgetown Natural Foods, a manufacturer of natural and organic snack products for clients including gourmet grocer Whole Foods Market, launched its Bridges to Better Health program in February.

The program is free to all 200 employees—many of whom are bakers, line workers and packers—and live in an underserved area of Southeast Portland.

"It dawned on us that our workers might not know how to use the products we make," says Kelly Flatley Klock, co-owner of Bridgetown Natural Foods.

The free hourlong quarterly workshops cover topics such as healthy eating, grocery budgeting and meal-planning with seasonal ingredients. One recent session covered the top 10 most nutritionally dense foods, and attendees tested recipes using those provisions. Most sessions take place in the company's test kitchen, and workers are paid their work wages while in attendance.

In addition, workers who participate in the workshops receive "Bridgetown dough" —tokens they can use to buy produce from Zenger Farm, an urban educational farm next to Bridgetown's headquarters. The tokens are also accepted by a local farmer's market. The company offers a total of $500 per month in these food credits.

Klock says she and her husband, Dan Klock, who serves as CEO of Bridgetown, wanted to practice what they preach about natural foods. Klock sold her last company, Bear Naked, which produces granola, to Kellogg Co. in 2007 for about $60 million.

"We asked ourselves: 'Where can we make an impact as owners and emphasize our commitment to natural foods beyond the products we make?' " she says.

Many small businesses are wondering how to have an impact on employee health and productivity, according to a recent report by the National Small Business Association Inc. and health insurance giant Humana.

Some 93 percent of small businesses said that the health of their employees is important to their bottom lines, but just 22 percent offer a wellness program, according to the survey of 1,005 small businesses with less than 100 employees.

"It's challenging," says Molly Brogan, vice president of public affairs for the National Small Business Association, of setting up a wellness program. "A lot of times, the benefits are gained over the long term and not immediately."

The group found that newer companies were more likely to offer wellness programs than older ones. Sixty-five percent of startups said wellness programs are worth the investment, while 31 percent are already adopting these programs, according to the survey from September 2012.

Small businesses often can't benefit from tax breaks on wellness, Brogan says. For instance, tax breaks are available for companies that build an on-site gym but not for paying for employee membership to a nearby fitness center, she says.

"Many incentives that lawmakers came up with don't help small businesses," she says.

However, she adds, health plans are starting to cater more to small employers that want to offer wellness programs.

Bridgetown Natural Foods spends about $1,000 per month on its nutritional education program, and plans on expanding it, Klock says, adding that the seminars are always oversubscribed and the response from employees has been enthusiastic. The company also offers medical, dental and vision coverage to its workers, whose average age is 38, but not a wellness component to its health plan.

Klock says an employee approached her after a recent workshop and told her that while every day on the production floor is the same, this one was different because of the workshop.

"I feel we are creating a better place to work," Klock says.

Rebecca Vesely is a writer based in San Francisco. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.