Twenty-something Rashmi Poduval moved from Kerala six years ago to work for an investment bank in Mumbai. The first office where she worked had no cafeteria facilities and she ended up gaining 12 kg. She blames it squarely on the colas and burgers she subsisted on. “I had to really sweat it out in gyms and go on a crash diet to shed all the weight that I gained because of my disastrous food habits,” she says.
Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss cooked up a storm recently when he asked for a blanket ban on colas in school cafeterias. His salvo was just part of the growing campaign against junk food, sparked off by studies showing rising obesity among Indian children. If the minister was to run a check on the cafeterias and street-side joints where the workforce of the nation eats, chances are there will be a bigger furore. With three million diabetics in the country and a booming economy contributing to expanding waistlines, doctors say it is high time offices started dishing out healthier menus.
A quick round of office cafeterias of all hues (PSUs, software firms, media outfits, banks, FMCG set-ups and pharma giants, including this newspaper’s own cafeteria) reveals that what’s on offer is guaranteed to load the employee—especially the sedentary executive—with unwanted calories. At most places, greasy samosas, bread pakoras, heavily-buttered sandwiches, butter chicken or patties are the most consumed items on the menu.
Why is there such a lack of attention on nutrition as far as office cafeteria menus are concerned? Is it so difficult to offer sandwiches made of whole-grained bread or a fruit platter? Well, in a lot of cases, it has to do with the profit focus of the caterer. Most cafeterias outsource this operation and the fact is that the queues at the healthy food counter are far shorter than the one at the junk food counter. Not surprisingly, the smart young man manning the pantry, whose sense of economics would do his boss proud, is quick to yank that slow-moving, healthy, non-sweetened yoghurt off his menu.
In many cases, it is also quite simply because no one—neither the HR department nor the employees themselves—have paid serious thought to the issue. Of course, we still have miles to go before we can talk of an example like the health conscious CEO in the US who removed all ‘unhealthy’ food from his cafeteria and now serves free fruits to all his employees every day. But yes, there is a DSP Merrill Lynch in Mumbai or a Reliance or several BPO outfits that have introduced fruit meal options, offer low fat butter, and have planned diets that are lighter, will not cause acidity and promote productivity.
These companies have outsourced food management services to professionals such as French MNC Sodexho. Delhi-based nutritionists Shikha Sharma and Ishi Khosla both report that they have been approached by companies for help with a healthy diet plan for their cafeterias. Khosla’s Whole Foods outlet that stocks only nutritious items caters to the employees and visitors at Max Hospital’s Saket branch.
But such companies are still a rarity. Despite being in India since 1997, only 25 corporates have handed over their kitchens to Sodexho. Amitabh Sinha, vice-president marketing, rues that companies still perceive cafeterias as cost centres, but says that in the last couple of years, the mindset is perceptibly changing with more employers realizing that a healthier menu equals increased productivity.
Both Sharma and Khosla say that while feelers have poured in, they haven’t seen any outcomes yet. “The interest is there to change, but as of now the will is lacking,” says Sharma.
How often are office cafeteria premises checked by the food and health departments? Well, forget the health officials, how often does the HR department inspect its own pantry? On the surface, many corporate sector kitchens and food counters might look spick and span, but do those preparing and serving the food follow basic hygiene rules—we spotted no gloves when we did our rounds, and, in some cases, even basics like soap and water were missing.
Professionally managed kitchens should meet Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) norms, Tepted as the key safety and hygiene management systems for the food industry. But how many cafeterias adhere to these? We dare not check.
Incidentally, as per the provisions under Section 46 of the Factories Act (1948), which applies to companies employing more than 20 workers (though several types of companies are exempt from this Act, according to lawyers), any unit employing more than 250 workers is required to provide cafeteria facilities. The Act also lays out guidelines on what the ideal cafeteria should be like – a clean, brightly lit, spacious place, with a pleasing décor. Section 9 of the Act does include a provision whereby the inspector appointed under the Act can check guideline violations. However, since nobody ever complains and the statute does not provide for mandatory routine inspections, it goes unreported and unnoticed.
And, certainly, what our rounds revealed is that not every office is an Infosys, which boasts food courts sprawling over 50,000sq ft or a Procter & Gamble with a funky cafeteria. The norm tends to be a dingy, badly-lit hall with packed tables, chairs in short supply, bad acoustics and greasy odours rife in the air.
Come lunch hour, do you nip out to the nearest dhaba and binge on dal makhani, chole rice or mutton biryani? Well, it may come up trumps on the taste and price quotient but will score low on the hygiene or safety factor. Surveys done by the Food and Agriculture Organization on street food in Kolkata showed that while the food provided by vendors was inexpensive and tasty, and had good nutritional value, there were high levels of contamination and poor hygiene. Water used for drinking, cooking and washing food was highly contaminated and E coli turned up in the food samples which were tested. Street vendors were also found to be using unsafe food additives such as metanil (a synthetic dye). The same study pointed out how in Bangkok, another Asian city where office-goers thrive on street food, the state department of health had taken tough measures to improve the safety of street food and had implemented a strict sanitary code.
Several of the companies we spoke to—and this includes firms such as Microsoft—said they didn’t have a cafeteria facility as most executives prefer to bring lunch from home. In Mumbai, especially, home of the efficient Six Sigma rated dabbawallas, officegoers do seem to prefer packed lunches from home. Professional catering outlets are also very popular. About 200 executives in Mumbai have opted for organic food diva Vijaya Venkat’s rigorous diet regime during the lunch hour. Venkat provides a healthy lunch box, customised to the executive’s requirement after a professional consultation that costs Rs500. Her box, delivered five days a week through the dabbawallas, costs Rs1,250 a month with a Rs1,000 deposit. “No iodized salt, no sugar, no wheat, plenty of fruits and salads,” is her advice. Mohini Krishnani’s less stringent health dabba offers a selection of salad, soup, sprouts and poha. In Delhi, those with offices near New Friends Colony can order Ishi Khosla’s Whole Foods health box that has “healthy burgers and healthy kathi rolls.” Shikha Sharma says that by next year, she will also be launching a range of nutrition packed health food.
Raman Kapoor, who works for a media outfit, points out that he drinks eight to 10 cups of tea or coffee at work, though when at home he barely has three cups a day. This is common enough. Shikha Sharma suggests that cafeterias should seriously look at herbal tea options—contrary to the perception, they are not at all expensive. Butttermilk, fruit juices, and soups are other alternatives, and the good news is that an increasing number of cafeterias are offering these options. As far as drinking water is concerned, almost all the offices surveyed had mineral water dispensers, but the buck doesn’t stop here —cleanliness and placement of these dispensers are important factors. More often than not, they are placed next to the washrooms, hardly an incentive for those recommended eight glasses!
Do office catering systems take care of hypertensive or diabetic employees with special dietary needs? Nutritionists lament that diabetics complain they do not get sugar-free beverages at work. Not surprisingly, it’s only the hospital cafeterias that offer a complete range of low-salt, low-oil, low-sugar meals. However, some IT and BPO companies are more caring. InterraIT (a fast growing software concern) in Noida accedes to requests for boiled vegetables or fruits to employees on special diets. It also has happy hours between 6.30pm and 8.30pm, where all snacks and soft drinks are served on the house for the InterraITans working late. Several BPO outfits have diets planned in a way that workers on different shifts get food that suits the time they operate in. So night shift workers get predominantly fruit-based diets, while morning workers could get the odd bread pakora thrown in.
Are you tired of unappetizing fare dished out by your cafeteria? Do you take comfort in the fact that the boss is eating the same stuff—or is he? Very often, as in one pharma giant’s café, we found the boss does get the same mayo-laden burger with the dubious advantage of fancier crockery and cutlery. But there are many offices that operate separate cafeterias for workers, for executives and sometimes, a third one for senior management and VIP visitors. Ask the top brass and they will put forward their own litany of woes—too many beer lunches, sumptuous multi-course meals as part of the mandatory entertaining they have to do, leaving them totally out of shape. And, talking of hierarchical differences in the menu, our parliamentarians do very well for themselves—they have a highly subsidized cafeteria boasting delicious meals.
Navjeet Singh, a corporate lawyer, never has his lunch before 5pm. And more often than not, lunch or the evening snack is a takeaway from the nearest fast food joint, to be eaten at his workstation. Not surprisingly, he is a frequent visitor at his gastroenterologist’s clinic. Well, most modern offices do ban food at the workstation—a good policy, say doctors, as nothing increases acidity more than untimely eating or unhealthy, snatched meals. Studies have shown that midday breaks for a light lunch and a brief rest make employees more productive, but in a competitive business environment, managers often feel pressured to skip lunch.
How many times have you looked at your office cafeteria menu and pulled a face? Well, what’s stopping you from forming an office cafeteria committee and getting the menu altered? Again, look at InterraIT, where the cafeteria committee comprises employees from every group. It welcomes feedback from everyone, which is then implemented as far as possible. Company officials opine that employees are by and large very health conscious.And here’s a dramatic example from Singapore, cited in the ILO book, Food at Work: The coffee firm Boncafe, which didn’t have a cafeteria, introduced cooking points in its offices where employees were encouraged to cook their meals and eat together—it didn’t cost the company much as employees donated utensils and brought their own ingredients. The upside? It significantly increased team spirit and productivity while medical costs dropped radically.
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