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Public Health addresses nutrition at JBS

WORTHINGTON -- While those mid-morning and late-day snacks from your employee break room vending machines may look appealing, those candy bars and bags of chips are poor options if you're trying to lead a healthy lifestyle.

But what if your employer has a cafeteria? Are those meal options any healthier?

Perhaps they aren't as healthy as you'd hoped.

For the past several years, Nobles-Rock Community Health has been working with its largest employer in the two-county territory -- JBS in Worthington -- to create a more healthy workplace.

The initiative began with the Quit Plan program, designed to help people kick the cigarette habit, after the state-wide indoor smoking ban took effect. Up until that time, the local pork processing facility maintained a special room indoors for smoke breaks.

According to Paula Bloemendaal, NRCHS health educator, the agency forged a relationship with JBS' local health liaison that allowed them to move from a smoke-free facility to a facility that now offers healthier food options in its cafeteria and vending machines.

"We had received SHIP (Statewide Health Improvement Plan) funding with particular strategies that we had to push through," said Bloemendaal. "One was improving nutrition in the work place. Because JBS is the largest employer in the region, we wanted to start with them."

An initial assessment of the JBS cafeteria options showed minimal healthy choice alternatives -- and options in their 10 vending machines were even worse, considered to contain less than 1 percent healthy foods.

The goal, said Bloemendaal, was to remove some of those processed items from the vending machines -- things like enormous burritos and high-sodium sandwiches -- and introduce more fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, trail mix and water.

"In the cafeteria, we were focusing more on the entrees, so people would have more healthy options for their main meal -- lunch, dinner or even breakfast," she said. "Depending on your shift, you could be eating two meals at the plant every day."

The process of implementing healthier food options at JBS took all of two years. Much of that time was spent breaking down the nutritional content in the long list -- hundreds of recipes -- of home-cooked meals prepared on-site for employees

"We had to purchase a nutrition program that would allow us to obtain the breakdown of each item," Bloemendaal said. Once that work was completed, NRCHS took the information to JBS management and United Vending Food Services (JBS' food manager).

"That was a fairly easy sell," recalled Bloemendaal.

Health issues, particularly diabetes, was something JBS' health liaison Victoria Blanchette was seeing on a daily basis.

"If we have healthy employees, they're less likely to utilize their insurance," Bloemendaal said. "It saves healthcare for all of us. It's a win-win that way."

NRCHS provided JBS with two $5,000 grants to implement a healthy foods project that included promotional materials, employee education and educational tools.

"We created this color-coded system that helps people identify which items are heart-healthy, diabetic-friendly and low sodium," Bloemendaal added.

The color-coded system was unveiled during the JBS health fair on June 10, and implemented in the cafeteria on June 13.

"Providing labels ... helps you make a better choice," she said.

While pleased with the end result after two years of work, Bloemendaal said there is more work to be done -- not just at JBS, but at work places across Nobles and Rock counties.

"We're really just scratching the surface (at JBS)," she said. "There are more changes we can make to give employees easier access to healthy choices."

The main concern now is that SHIP funding is in jeopardy. The program initially was to end June 30, but Bloemendaal said they have been extended to September. After that, funding is a wild card.

"We're hoping if we get additional funding ... we'll have more staff capacity to do more work sites," she added. "I think people want to choose the healthier options -- sometimes they don't know what that is."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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