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Are You What Your People Eat?

Saturday Spark #8

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

Last year, WeWork rocked the business world. Not for the staggering amounts of capital raised or opening more than 200 new locations, but for a simple and yet profound announcement signaling their values. The headline read:  We Will Not Serve or Pay For Meat. The policy included all company events and employee expenses.

The announcement was instantly controversial. It was referred to as draconian, tyrannical and deemed impossible to enforce. Yet it raised awareness of the impact of meat and it is changing 6,000 employees behavior. That behavior change will prevent an estimated 445 million pounds of CO2 emissions, save 16.6 billion gallons of water, and save more than 15 million animals’ lives by 2023.

However, another benefit of eliminating meat was less mentioned in the hullabaloo. Eating more plant-based meals is one of the best ways to improve overall health, according to the Mayo Clinic. A landmark study released this week showed that poor diet, particularly not eating enough nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, is the leading cause of death globally, ahead of cigarettes and cancer. With one policy change, WeWork reduced their footprint and potentially improved the health and life-span of their employees.

I admire WeWork’s founders for making this incredibly bold move. It certainly prompted me to think about where and how my own people eat. We are in a co-working space with generally healthy and vegetarian snacks. We choose locally-owned restaurants for company events, but I’m now inspired to order vegetarian options only. But I can barely approve expenses in a timely manner, let alone scan for meat. Realistically, that change isn’t happening, for now.

Home is where I completely understand the backlash. I eat vegetarian for breakfast and lunch and am trying to do more meat-free dinners.  However, Mr. Stevens is the family chef and pretty insistent that a decent dinner involves meat. Our compromise is that meat-free is fine, as long as I cook. Completely fair. But it’s also how take-out cheese pizza ended up on the table after running late from work this week: It’s meat-free! And local! The kids were thrilled, but I doubt the dietary researchers would be.

Five years ago, an article in Harvard Business Review highlighted the outsized role that food, and the company cafeteria, plays in the employee experience. “You are What Your Employees Eat” highlighted the role cafeterias play to get employees to be healthier and more sustainable. However, it also showed that cafeterias can be an outstanding place to encourage creative collaboration, community, inspiration, connection and be a vivid demonstration of a company’s core values.

Not every company will follow WeWork’s lead, but many are increasing the amount of plant-based meals, sourcing more food locally, and offering more sustainable meat choices like ocean-friendly fish or pastured chicken. They are reducing the availability of high salt and sugar drinks and snacks. Switching to reusable to go containers, utensils and cups and eliminating plastic straws. However, I would hypothesize that in addition to food and waste decisions, purpose-driven meals also encourage connection and community. They foster a sense of belonging through more communal tables, conversation themes or Table Topics, and even meal-based learning options.

So scan your cafeteria, your snack shelf and kitchen and pick one thing to change and align with your desired impact. Aim high, but be willing to flex.You can consider a sweeping policy change, but might achieve desired impact with less backlash through two-way conversations with your people and offering recognition and incentives for better choices. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. If cheese pizza is how you make it through a Meat-Free Monday one week, I’ve got your back.

My perspective is that you are much more than what your people eat, but what and how your people eat does say a lot about you. When you encourage healthier, more sustainable and more connected meals, it primarily says you care.

Quote of the Week:  Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.  — Michael Pollan

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What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week.If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

Read Previous Week’s Spark: Raising Kids and Companies in the Climate Change Era

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