Health and nutrition at The Wonderful Co.

The Wonderful Co. promotes healthy eating and exercise habits for its employees in the Central Valley. Its food processing plants in Delano and Lost Hills have full gyms and on-site medical and mental-health clinics, as well as cafeterias offering healthy nutrition.

A prominent think tank is holding up a local model of workplace-based health services as an effective approach to reducing rates of type-2 diabetes.

In a case study published this month in the journal Population Health Management, Santa Monica-based think tank Rand Corp. says there may be value in copying agriculture giant The Wonderful Co.'s approach to offering everything from doctor appointments to health coaching to exercise programs at its food-processing plants employing 4,000 people in Delano and Lost Hills.

Rand's report noted the share of Wonderful employees classified as pre-diabetic declined by a third, going from 49 percent, when the Wonderful Health & Wellness program was launched, to 33 percent three years later.

"Traditionally, primary care clinics focus more on medical treatment than health promotion, whereas workplace wellness programs emphasize the latter," Rand researchers Catherine Cohen and Harry H. Liu wrote. "When put together, each likely improves the effectiveness of the other."

Rand was commissioned by Wonderful to perform the study.

Wonderful's health and wellness program, available to employees and their family members at no charge, is part of the Los Angeles-based company's philanthropic mission to transform the lives of Central Valley residents in communities where it operates. It created the program specifically to address the region's high rates of diabetes, which afflicts more than 30 million Americans and costs the nation an estimated $327 billion per year.

The Rand study says diabetes can be partly caused by growing consumption of processed and sugar-sweetened food and drinks. Noting that the U.S. health-care system has been largely ineffective at controlling the chronic disease, it states employers are increasingly focused on addressing diabetes as a way of promoting productivity, reducing workers absenteeism and cutting health-care costs.

One focus of the researchers was the way Wonderful's comprehensive program benefits from frequent, face-to-face interactions between employees and health providers. They said this strategy may be more beneficial than the video-based doctor visits other employers have rolled out in recent years.

The report also highlighted the company's aim of merging wellness programs with medical clinics, which it said don't usually perform disease-management roles. Offering the two functions within a workplace environment may maximize resources and help workers bring about positive lifestyle changes, the researchers wrote.

"Because on-site providers have knowledge of wellness program offerings, they can tailor recommendations that align with readily available resources," the report says.

In an interview July 22, Wonderful Chief Medical Officer Dr. Larry Wolk, formerly the head of public health for the state of Colorado, described the company's integrated health and wellness program as a mostly voluntary program designed to fit conveniently into workers' schedules.

Most employees have signed up for the services of one of the company's six health coaches, he said. Workers are required to take fitness breaks, Wolk added, and price discounts encourage them to eat highly nutritious meals at company cafeterias. Employees interested in buying healthy foods for cooking at home benefit from wholesale pricing.

"You can get a meal for a family of four for $12, $13 and sort of help model that at home besides," he said.

Wonderful is a privately held company with 10,000 employees total. It grows, produces and markets almonds, pistachios, easy-to-peel citrus and pomegranate juice, among other products.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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