Fruity Fridays ensure that delicious healthy snacks are available at work.

Fruity Fridays ensure that delicious healthy snacks are available at work.

By Melissa Fontaine and Dean Zatkowsky

In a quiet, carpeted conference room at the Santa Barbara County Public Health office, Yoga Teacher Megan Michaels leads employees through a lunchtime yoga class. During their forty minute lunch break, employees can step away from their desks to release some tension. According to Michaels, employees are stressed when they walk in the door, but relaxed and ready to get back to work by the end of class.

These on-site yoga classes are part of a “Parents at Work” grant from the Orfalea Foundation, which resulted in Project ACT (, a collection of resources designed to encourage and assist with workplace wellness activities at three pilot locations: Santa Maria-Bonita School District, Chumash Enterprises (a tribally owned resort and casino), and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

“The foundation was looking for ways to ensure that our school food and food literacy work could spread to parents, but after-school and after-work programs just seemed like one more demand on already busy people,” said School Food Initiative Lead Chef Instructor Janet Stevenson. “Nearly all of the parents work, however, so the workplace wellness project allows us to reach them and even more of the community with healthy ideas.” Aligned with the Orfalea Foundation’s mission to strengthen communities by empowering individuals, the workplace wellness programs encourage employees to live healthier lives, and share a healthy lifestyle with their families and friends.

According to a survey conducted at the three pilot locations:

  • 65% of all responding employees have adopted a healthy practice in the last few months, such as eating less junk food, drinking more water, or getting more physical activity.
  • Participation in workplace activities, such as Walking Groups, Fruity Fridays, or Zumba, has doubled or tripled at the pilot organizations.
  • 44% of respondents shared healthy practices with kids as a result of the Project ACT Workplace Wellness program.

Project Manager Seth Nickinson is pleased with this progress, but emphasizes that every workplace must determine its own wellness program, based on its unique circumstances, coworker needs, and opportunities. According to Nickinson, to maintain a successful Workplace Wellness program, the entire organization must buy-in, especially at the executive level. The program also benefits from distributed leadership and a clear agenda for the upcoming year.

“Project ACT mainly provides some structure, communications, and coaching to help people execute their own ideas. We’ve tried to build a structure so that the program belongs to the employees of an organization, as opposed to whoever is funding or running it. Our experience with this year-long pilot program is that those are the initiatives that stick and create positive workplaces; the ones that are initiated by employees.”

Reginald Vaughn, an Administrative Assistant at Public Health’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, is also the Project ACT/ Workplace Wellness Chairman for the SBCPHD. In addition to his daily responsibilities, Vaughn promotes and encourages workplace wellness activities. These additional responsibilities take time for Vaughn, but he is happy to share his commitment to a healthy lifestyle. Project ACT believes that small actions add up to big changes over the long term, and Vaughn has seen evidence of those small actions taking root. “The culture has changed a lot when it comes to meetings. Instead of bagels and doughnuts they’re doing fruit and vegetables.”

A Yoga class at the Lompoc office of the Public Health Department.

A Yoga class at the Lompoc office of the Public Health Department.

“This has really snowballed. We meet monthly to share ideas and plan; the website offers lots of great tips, and we’ve gotten lots of positive impact from our employees. We’re really looking forward to the future opportunities, like our upcoming weight loss challenge.”

Reginald Vaughn, Santa Barbara County EMS Agency

Toward the end of the pilot, Nickinson asked employees of the Public Health Department which of the activities they tried had been most impactful. “People said many different things, because it’s a diverse workplace, but the key is that each respondent experienced the impact.” Nickinson elaborates: “At the public health department in Lompoc, they had a very successful healthy family picnic. Great turnout, great for morale, and they’re looking to do another one even without grant funding, because it worked out so well the employees want to fund it themselves. The Santa Barbara office had a smaller turnout, but those who went loved it. You cannot say Project ACT is about healthy family picnics, though. Lompoc is definitely doing another, but Santa Barbara might choose something different in the future. Santa Barbara has had consistently successful yoga classes, but there are no yoga classes happening in Lompoc. For a wellness program to catch on, it’s got to be a good fit all around.”

So, the program is something different in each workplace, based on who picks it up and runs with it, and what interests them. Project ACT builds in a lot of flexibility so people can base workplace wellness programs on their own natural enthusiasms. During the pilot, participants tried movement challenges, Fruity Fridays, Onsite Zumba and Yoga, moving meetings, healthy family picnics, team stretching, weight loss challenges, healthier office celebrations, charity walks, recipe contests, and biometric screenings.

In part two of this three-part story, we’ll look at the broader goals of Project ACT and how the Santa Maria Bonita School District participated in the pilot.

Melissa Fontaine is Food Literacy Manager at the Orfalea Foundation. Dean Zatkowsky is the foundation’s Communications Manager.

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