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Danny Wegman's Urgent Message on Health Initiatives

Danny Wegman's Urgent Message on Health Initiatives

Warning: This column contains blunt assertions from an industry CEO who’s been a change driver for decades. His comments relay irritation, challenge the status quo, and make a ton of sense.

Danny Wegman is a different kind of leader. That becomes apparent when you hear him speak. When the CEO of Wegmans Food Markets gets fired up on a topic, he becomes an ambassador who pushes his viewpoint throughout the industry. Over the years that’s been true on issues ranging from food safety to industry collaboration.

His latest message focuses on health and wellness, specifically the well-being of industry employees and, on a broader level, of the country and world. In remarks at the recent Grocery Manufacturers Association Chairman’s Dinner, and also in an SN Total Access Video, Danny challenged the industry to make more progress in battling obesity, diabetes and related problems.

His comments were based on statistics that show the U.S. is losing the battle against these types of conditions.

“The [national] trend is to get more and more obese every 10 years,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”

Danny, however, has another set of data that shows the remarkable progress Wegmans has been making in improving the health of its own 44,000-person workforce.

Wegmans has been pursuing a number of wellness initiatives that have made a difference, explained Jo Natale, director of media relations. One of these is its “Eat Well, Live Well” program, which focuses on a challenge for changing eating and physical activity habits. The retailer has also been involved in bringing that program to other organizations.

Among other company efforts making a difference, Natale said, Wegmans has strived to raise awareness through free employee health screenings (cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose, BMI). Another effort, “Know Your Numbers,” is specific to blood pressure, with pharmacists’ coaching and advice available to those whose numbers are high. Employees are encouraged to use “half-plate healthy” as a guide for meals (fill half your plate with fruits/vegetables, and the other half with anything else).

Read more: Wegman, Smucker Honored for Achievements

Still another important initiative was the move in 2008 to stop selling tobacco products. At the same time, a free smoking cessation program was made available to employees and their spouses.

There are also a number of wellness programs to encourage increased physical activity, such as yoga classes, and employee participation in community walks, runs and 5Ks.

So what’s been the impact of all this? Danny noted that in measuring results, Wegmans focuses on high blood pressure over weight, because it’s a less charged topic, and the necessary lifestyle changes have a beneficial impact on weight as well. The retailer began measuring results in 2008, and most recently reported that the percentage of its employees with high blood pressure has dropped from 24% in 2008 to about 14% today.

Meanwhile, even though Wegmans hasn’t specifically focused on weight, it does track body mass index, and found the percentage of its employees with healthy weights rose from 29% to 40% in the same period, and those considered obese dropped from 32% to 25%.

This level of success made Danny feel he had the right to bring this story to a larger stage within the industry.

A big problem, Danny said, is a multitude of industry efforts aimed at these problems, while well meaning, lack standard systems of measurement.

“We’ve got all these programs, and this one sounds good, or that one sounds good … but we don’t really know if they work.”

SN Total Access Video: 2013 FMI Midwinter Executive Conference

Turning to the Wegmans program, he asserted, “I know it’s made a difference, and I can prove it.”

So what is Danny urging? “As individual companies we should be measuring these things,” he said. “Communities should be measuring these things. Then we’d begin to see how we can make a difference.”

His recommendation is that companies focus on five standard measures: blood pressure, body mass index, sugar, cholesterol and smoking versus nonsmoking.

Danny is known for getting to the root of problems with relatively simple solutions, and it’s hard to argue with his prescription here, especially given the success of his company’s efforts. It makes a world of sense for the industry to take a closer look at his suggestions.

It’s a safe bet Danny will continue to make his voice heard on this topic for some time, and he probably won’t shy away from presenting it with stark choices, as he already has, to help bring attention to the issue.

“We can make our country and the world heavy and sick, or together we can make them healthy and well,” Danny said. “So the challenge I give you is to make your companies and people healthier. I don’t think it’s a unified effort yet. Let’s find the answers.”

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