Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
July 14, 2014
Kraft Foods Group Inc.’s garden in Northfield. The produce is donated.
Sterling Bay Cos., a real estate development firm, promotes a healthy lifestyle for its 62 employees with an on-site gym, training and yoga sessions, and an in-house chef who cooks fresh, seasonal fare for breakfast and lunch every day.
Now management is adding an amenity to give its staff another health and productivity boost: an organic vegetable garden. Last month, Organic Gardener Ltd., a Glencoe-based operation that creates organic vegetable gardens for corporate, residential and nonprofit clients, began designing a 30-by-40-foot raised garden area that will be installed soon on Sterling Bay’s new, lounge-like rooftop deck at its West Loop headquarters.
The firm’s chef will choose the plants he wants for his culinary creations. Staffers will be able to take breaks and work the garden if they want to get away from the hectic office buzz for a bit, says Russ Cora, vice president of leasing.
“We’re conscious of trying to be healthier and make this a cool place to work—this garden is part of those efforts,” Mr. Cora says.
A small but growing number of Chicago-area companies are tapping gardening experts to help them grow fresh produce on site. Some employers are establishing gardens to foster healthier lifestyles by emphasizing nutritious, fresh foods for their workers. Employees can get outside to bend and stretch while tending the garden during breaks. Additional benefits include bonding among workers, and stress relief that can contribute to improved productivity when they get back to their desk, according to Stephanie Spronk, a senior vice president leading the health transformation team at Aon Hewitt, a global employee-benefits firm with headquarters in Lincolnshire.
“We have such a sedentary workforce that any type of movement is good,” Ms. Spronk says. “Also, when gardening is done in a group setting, you have a social connection with people that’s good for workplace communication and team-building.”
Employees volunteer in Kraft Foods Group Inc.’s garden in Northfield. The produce is donated. Photos provided by Kraft Foods Group Inc.
Employees at Savino Del Bene, a global logistics and freight-forwarding company in northwest suburban Des Plaines, pitched in one afternoon about three years ago to set up six large raised beds and plant fruit and vegetable seedlings. The company, which leases its building in an industrial complex, got permission from the owners to plant the beds adjacent to an outdoor patio area.
Before long, many of the 55 workers started eating more salads, fresh fruits and vegetables because they were sharing the harvest in the communal kitchen, says Wendy Irwin, CEO of Yellow Tractor, a for-profit social enterprise based in Wilmette that helped Savino Del Bene build its garden. Caprese salads with fresh-picked tomatoes and basil and store-bought mozzarella were a big hit.
Since each raised bed is overseen by a different department, employees started annual competitions to see which garden yields the most pounds of produce, Ms. Irwin says.
What’s more, staffers who spend much of the day in front of computers and phones leave their desk for brief periods and work in the garden for stress relief when they need it, she says.
THE NEW GYM
In addition to helping companies such as Savino Del Bene establish edible gardens and teach them about nutrition and wellness, the firm has a nonprofit arm. The Yellow Tractor Project assists corporations in sponsoring organic vegetable gardens in communities of need.
“Gardening is the new gym in employee wellness programs,” Ms. Irwin says. “You may not burn as many calories as you would at the gym but you get the same stress relief, and it takes less time to get there if the garden is right where you work.”
Ted Kopacz, a machine shop foreman, works in the garden behind Serfilco’s Northbrook building. Photo: Kendall Karmanian
Serfilco, a manufacturer of industrial pumping and filtration equipment, had Organic Gardener set up an 800-square-foot vegetable garden behind its Northbrook building four years ago to get its 50-plus employees thinking about good nutrition, says James J. Berg, vice president of Serfilco, a division of Service Filtration Corp., a family-owned business.
“At the very least, we hope our employees would take advantage of free organic vegetables to take home,” he says. He sends out regular emails to let workers know what’s ripe for picking. “Eating organic food is good for their wellness. A healthier employee misses work less often, which is better for them and better for us.”
Typically a few workers emerge as (nonpaid) primary caretakers of the company garden. At Serfilco, it’s Mr. Berg, who often comes in on weekends with his daughter.
Most of Organic Gardener’s work comes from residential gardens and educational programs. Since 2005, the firm has built about a dozen gardens for corporations and nonprofits. At Yellow Tractor, where a 4-by-8-foot bed and educational support starts at $5,000 to $10,000, the firm expects 75 percent of its work this year will be for corporations.
Kraft Foods Group Inc. created a lush, 8,000-square-foot vegetable garden in 2011 (pictured above) with the help of the Chicago Botanic Garden; it donates all the produce to food pantries and local shelters, says Leah Bradford, associate director of community involvement. Close to 500 employees at the Northfield complex have volunteered in the garden since its inception to contribute to the company’s ethos of community service, she says.
This year the food giant estimates some 200 employee volunteers will spend time in the garden either on lunch breaks or during regular volunteer days where one or two hours is set aside for gardening in teams. About 30,000 pounds of produce has been donated by Kraft from its garden.
“Our primary mission for the garden is to fight hunger, but it’s a great way for our employees to get to know each other and develop relationships in a nontypical work environment,” Ms. Bradford says.
At Sterling Bay, Mr. Cora says the organic garden planned for its headquarters is a pilot that could be replicated across Chicago’s corporate skyline if it’s the hit they expect. The firm owns 8 million square feet of office space in the city, and they’re installing many rooftop decks in old loft buildings they’re renovating.
– Judith Nemes