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Eating green saves workplace green

A bowl of salad

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Kai Ryssdal: Well here we are. Day five. How are the resolutions going? Are you spending less money? Being more productive? Eating better?

Losing weight and improving health are perennials at New Year's. This year a lot of companies have them on their lists too. And they're putting their money where your mouth is. Shia Levitt reports.


Shia Levitt: At the Florida Power and Light company cafeteria, signs list the nutritional sins and virtues of every menu item. The idea is to help employees make healthy choices. But if calorie and fat counts aren't enough to steer diners away from cheeseburgers and fries, there are some other numbers that might.

Andy Scibelli: If you want a healthy entree and two sides, it's $3.99 and if you want a regular entree and two sides, which is $5.35.

That's Andy Scibelli, Florida Power and Light's manager of employee health and well-being. He says the company subsidizes about 20 percent of the cost of each healthy meal. Diners also get a punch card to earn a free meal for every dozen healthy ones they buy. Those who skip salad and grilled fish pick up part of the tab.

Scibelli: So in essence, the individuals that are eating regular or food that isn't as healthy are actually helping to subsidize the costs of the healthier meals.

As health care costs rise, several large companies are trying similar strategies. Employers hope they will boost productivity, lower medical costs, and reduce turnover. Freddie Mac has a punch card program. Florida Power and Light spends about $150 annually per employee on a wide-ranging wellness program.

Scibelli says the numbers of people buying healthy foods in the cafeteria have been steadily improving since the incentives started. But not everyone feels the same about the taste. Employee Gina Guarino says she still prefers the quesadillas.

Gina Guarino: To me, I think some of the healthy choices are a little bland, so that's why I tend to go for something else with a little more flavor. I think I do other things to promote my health, as far as exercise and things like that.

For state employees in Alabama, financial incentives go beyond a cheaper lunch. Those with obesity, hypertension or high cholesterol now have a year to address their problem or pay $25 extra each month for health insurance. New York University economist Lawrence White says there's a fine line between incentives and punishing employees who won't change their behavior. People like options, he says, and that includes the choice to buy those fries.

Lawrence White: As soon as employees feel like there's a cop on the beat, that someone is looking over their shoulder, there's -- it feels like a line of intrusiveness that the employer has stepped over, and boy, that can really destroy employee morale.

But if rewarding employees for giving up Cheetos from nine to five makes them happier and healthier, White says that could boost productivity. Of course that doesn't take into account what they're eating once they leave the office.

I'm Shia Levitt, for Marketplace.

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