Building Blocks

With a plan in hand, the GSA has begun its efforts to make federal cafeterias healthier and more sustainable. FoodService Director - GSA wellness mandate - Building BlocksWASHINGTON, D.C.—Earlier this year, President Obama issued a four-part mandate designed to improve wellness among federal employees, and charged the Government Services Administration, which oversees foodservice operations in most federal buildings, with making it happen.

Last month, FoodService Director was given an opportunity to see the opening salvos that have been fired in this battle to support the president’s initiative. Sam Ayoub, chief of the Retail, Concessions and Specialty Services Branch of the National Capital Region of the GSA, gave us a whirlwind tour of several cafeterias where wellness programs are being implemented.

The visit was a follow-up to a conversation we had with Larry Melton, assistant commissioner of facilities management and service programs for the GSA. (See “Wellness Mandate.")

“We wanted to deal with the core components of healthy and sustainable food options,” Melton said. “We had to incorporate that into our concessions contracts, knowing it could be supported by industry trends.”

The “poster child” for GSA’s wellness and sustainability efforts is the 200-seat cafeteria at the Department of the Interior. Not only does the cafeteria, now in the final stages of a renovation of both the servery and the dining room, offer federal employees a wide variety of healthy menu options, it also will do its part to earn LEED Gold certification for the DOI.

It doesn’t hurt that the dining space is large and inviting, lit primarily by natural light from a bank of skylights, with a décor that includes several live trees that help to oxygenate the air.

FoodService Director - GSA wellness mandate - Building Blocks“When we put together our RFP for this facility, we were outlining a plan of action as it relates to wellness and sustainability,” says Ayoub. “We wanted to make this location a great beginning model for the whole wellness initiative. Our hope is that everything we do from this point on will be building on what we accomplish here.”

The proposal gave Sodexo, the contractor that won the bid to operate DOI’s foodservice, the opportunity to refine some its already established wellness programs, as well as perhaps test some new ideas.

“The waste reduction and wellness-related programs are in alignment with several of the 14 commitments that make up Sodexo’s Better Tomorrow Plan, the company’s formal road map for sustainability,” company officials stated in a press release. Sodexo is upholding its commitment at DOI by:
FoodService Director - GSA wellness mandate - Building Blocks• featuring wellness choices and providing nutritional content such as calorie counts at each café destination through Sodexo’s Your Health Your Way program;
• using stand-alone kiosks to act as resource centers for DOI employees for a variety of events and services, including recipes and nutrition information;
• bringing guest chefs and nutritionists on site to discuss wellness;
•installing a SOMAT composting system to reduce waste volume and hauling expenses, and;
•encouraging customers to separate organic and non-organic waste, to use reusable bottles at beverage areas and make use of compostable disposables.

The sustainability message is communicated to the 1,200 or so DOI employees who use the cafeteria each day through flat-screen monitors set up at each waste station. The monitors are used to teach customers which of their waste items goes in which of four bins set up at the station.

Similar initiatives are being undertaken across town at the State Department, where Rockville, Md-based I.L. Creations recently was hired to manage a foodservice program that reaches 3,000 to 4,000 employees a day.

Steven Choi, president of I.L. Creations, has a dietitian on staff, Mary O’Connor, who comes to the cafeteria once a week to present various health-related topics and help guide individual customers on making healthy choices.

FoodService Director - GSA wellness mandate - Building Blocks“I focus on a different aspect of health each week, and I use visual aids as much as possible,” says O’Connor, who was demonstrating the sugar content of various beverages on the day we visited. Arrayed on the table before her were bottles of sodas and other drinks, with a container in front of each holding the amount of sugar to be found in that drink.

“I think seeing these items gives people an idea of what I’m talking about,” she adds. “One week I did a presentation on calcium, and I used little bags of flour to show how much calcium could be found in your bones at various stages of your life, and what happens when bones lose calcium through osteoporosis.”

The State Department is getting ready to begin the second phase of its own major facelift, which will make I.L. Creation’s job of promoting wellness and sustainability easier. At present, the State cafeteria has two serveries, divided by a corridor that leads to the back of the house. The renovation will upgrade the South Side servery and link the two as one large unit. The North Side servery received its own makeover two years ago, Ayoub says.

“Right now, if a customer is in the North Side and wants to buy something in the South Side, he or she has to go out through the cashier station and then go back in,” he explains, noting that although many menu items can be found at both serveries there is enough variety to cause people to want to visit both sides. “With one servery we will have better organization and will be better able to get our message out.”

Ayoub adds that the State cafeteria will also be LEED-certified when the renovation is completed, in about two years.

When trying to carry a theme like wellness or sustainability throughout an organization, some administrators might find it easier to use one foodservice contractor to consolidate the effort. But Ayoub, who worked on the vendor side for several years before joining GSA two years ago, says he doesn’t see working with multiple contractors to be a hindrance. Rather, he sees some benefits on both sides of the table.

“I think working with several vendors is one of the beauties of the program,” he explains. “We recognize that we have to work within the capability of our vendors. They don’t all have the same resources, but they each bring a personal approach to achieving the same goals. By working with more than a single vendor, we learn things in the process that make us better as an organization, and we think the whole process makes our vendors better partners, as well.”

But no matter what vendors bring to the table, the key to GSA’s success in these areas, according to Ayoub, will be whether customers embrace the concepts strongly enough to take them home.

“At the end of the day this is all about education,” says Ayoub. “Our whole philosophy is to get customers not only to practice healthy eating, but to continue to do the same things when they are away from the office. We want them to take these ideas home with them and pass them on to their families. And the same thing is true for sustainability.”