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April 21, 2009
Garden Helps Employees Enjoy the Fruits of Their Labor

What do you do on your work breaks? Tim Schultz and at least 20 of his co-workers often spend their breaks working in an employee garden on the grounds of Lundberg Family Farms®.

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“I find it very therapeutic. It's nice to go out and dig in the dirt,” says Schultz, who is vice president of Administration for the third-generation family business. “There are a lot of employees who have never gardened before, who get a real kick out of it.”

Planting a Seed

Last year, the Richvale, California , company, which uses organic and “eco-positive” farming practices to produce rice products, decided to sponsor an employee garden. Lundberg spent approximately $2,000 on the project and set up eight raised beds covering about one-third of an acre, according to Schultz.

A member of the HR department, who is an experienced gardener, coordinates the initiative. Lundberg (www.lundberg.com) invites employees to work in the garden during breaks and lunch, planting seeds and plants donated by employees, weeding, harvesting fruits and vegetables, and, at the end of a growing season, preparing the garden beds for the next round of planting, Schultz says. An irrigation system keeps the garden watered.

Summertime crops include peppers, strawberries, green beans, melons, squash, eggplant, and tomatoes, according to Schultz. In the winter, employees grew snow peas, onions, lettuce, carrots, and potatoes. “We had a phenomenal harvest last year.”

The 20 to 25 employees who volunteer in the garden have “first claim on the fruits of their labor,” he says. Some of the crops are used to supplement the fruits and vegetables that Lundberg purchases from a local natural foods store to distribute to its approximately 180 employees on a daily basis.

Lundberg employees can choose one seasonal fruit or vegetable daily, he says. “We usually have two or three things to choose from every day.”

This program was initiated about 3 years ago, as a way for the company to promote healthier eating during a California initiative to encourage employees to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, he explains. “We think it promotes healthier snacking.”

It costs the company about $12,000 annually to provide the fruits and vegetables, according to Schultz. “From my perspective, it's a relatively low-cost employee benefit… It's not cheap, but I think there's a lot of value for it.”

Noting that some one-day annual corporate picnics, which Lundberg also sponsors, can run into the same price range, Schultz points out that the free fruits and vegetables are offered throughout the year. “It's a benefit that's there every day.”

In addition to a variety of other wellness benefits, Lundberg employees participate in daily stretching exercises before the start of each shift, he says. The company hired a trainer to design stretches tailored to each work area and train employees on how to do the exercises. Each department has selected a person to lead the 5 to 10 minutes of daily stretching exercises, according to Schultz. Exercises for office employees focus on the back, neck, and shoulders, for example, while those who make rice cakes for the company primarily stretch their hands, wrists, and upper body.

Schultz credits the wellness benefits with improving employees' health, reducing absenteeism, increasing productivity, strengthening loyalty, and lowering healthcare costs. “We've heard a lot of really positive testimony from employees in terms of how it's improved their health.”

Last year, Lundberg was named the California Workplace of the Year for the second consecutive year by The Employer Resource Institute, received a “California Fit Business” Bronze Award from the state's Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness, and earned recognition as a 2008 “Top Small Workplace” by Winning Workplaces™ and The Wall Street Journal .

Cultivating Wellness

Before implementing wellness initiatives, Schultz recommends asking employees what types of benefits they are interested in, so you can offer benefits most likely to generate high participation. “Asking employees what's important to them is a really good first step.”

He also notes the importance of providing a variety of wellness benefits—to appeal to a wide range of employee interests and circumstances.

Support from top management and a philosophy that “employee health is a priority” are essential to the success of a wellness program, he adds.

If you want to start an employee garden, your location will obviously determine whether it is a year-round, or seasonal, initiative. Schultz suggests sponsoring a garden as a pilot project so that you can determine what worked, as well as the level of employee interest, before committing to it over the long term.

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