A Healthy Revolution

Fit NOLA aims to change workplace habits.

Have you noticed the distinctive blue bikes that began to proliferate across the streets of New Orleans earlier this year? Aside from being an affordable and convenient travel alternative, they provide exercise while functioning as rolling billboards for outgoing Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s “Fit NOLA” initiative.

Inspired by Michelle Obama’s national “Let’s Move” campaign, in 2011, Landrieu launched Fit Nola with the goal of improving the city’s overall health and well-being through better eating options and exercise opportunities. The reach of the program potentially includes all New Orleanians, regardless of age or economic circumstance. Fit NOLA’s programming extends from early childhood into the workplace and beyond.

Considering the city’s wellness statistics, the program could be considered a lifeline to the community. Sixty-four percent of New Orleanians are overweight or obese. Diabetes and high blood pressure — often side effects of obesity — are endemic. Louisiana spends $2.3 billion on obesity related costs each year.

On average, the city’s workforce is reported to have 11.9 “unhealthy” days per month. That translates into lots of lost revenue for local businesses, and when the bottom line is involved, people tend to take notice. The good news is that, on average, employers can save $3.50 for every $1 spent on workplace wellness programs.

That’s where Fit NOLA comes in. The program starts by screening participating businesses for access to exercise and healthy food, then Fit NOLA’s solutions are summarized in individualized tool kits in order to facilitate change.

With average Americans spending 47-plus hours a week at work, food is often consumed on the run, with many turning to fast food. Increasingly, the solution is healthy vending, which may sound like an oxymoron. Most vending machines are usually stocked with candy bars, salty snack foods and sugary drinks.

What is healthy vending? Norco-based Refreshment Solutions is an expert on the subject. Currently, it is the largest vending operation in Louisiana, servicing over 6,000 machines. When it comes to vending, Refreshment Solutions owns 90 percent of the New Orleans market and 70 percent in Baton Rouge.

Searching for a healthy solution to the void in workplace dining, in 2011, entrepreneur Erik Frank launched “Your Nutrition Delivered,” a small startup offering fresh food delivery to offices across the city. His concept exploded when he won the Big Idea competition in 2013 during the Idea Village Entrepreneur Week.

Not content to rest on junk food profits, Refreshment Solutions soon took notice of the startup, recognizing that Frank was part of the wave of the future. Frank joined the vending giant in 2015 and together they envisioned something far more convenient than delivery — micro-markets.

Micro-markets are defined as an “unattended-kiosk-open-cooler system” with the ability to offer over 300 items, including fresh foods and organic products. Choices range from buffalo chicken wraps to turkey Caprese sandwiches with fresh mozzarella and basil, or Greek chicken salad with honey-balsamic vinaigrette. Prices range from $3.99 to $7.99.

The markets are run on the honor system, utilizing a self-check-out kiosk. Employees register purchases by bar code scan, paying with an app called Canteen Connect or via fingerprint recognition. This payment system allows employers to subsidize and incentivize healthy purchases.

Information gathered at point of purchase helps the system develop relationships with the consumer, tracking what and when they buy and making real-time specials a possibility. If you enjoy a particular kind of mid-afternoon snack, for example, the app may send a push notification to your smartphone reminding you it’s time for a break and maybe offering a 20 percent discount on your favorite treat.

I encourage all companies to join the healthy revolution by becoming a Fit NOLA-designated business. The initial survey takes just minutes to complete and the service is free of charge. Seventy percent of all chronic diseases are preventable through simple lifestyle changes, so why not be the change we need in this region? Your body, the bodies of your employees, and your bottom line will thank you.

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
Catch Poppy on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Wednesdays at 1 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.