- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - Vending machines have evolved greatly from their heyday of spitting out candy, Cokes and smokes - to the point that a pilot program at Logistics Health Inc. in La Crosse is adding a health - and gourmet - twist.

Of course, the window for cigarette vending machines slammed shut virtually everywhere in the United States in 2010, while the doors are opening wider for options such as healthy breakfasts and lunches made fresh daily in the LHI venture.

“It’s a natural expansion of educating people to make better decisions and wiser choices,” said LHI founder and CEO Don Weber, adding that it also dovetails with LHI’s healthy culture, which includes Riverside Corporate Wellness’s fitness center, health education programs and classes, primary health care clinic and three-hour-a-week exercise options for employees.

LHI’s fresh food vending pilot program began in March in conjunction with its mother ship, OptumHealth, and Optum’s owner, UnitedHealth Group, in the Twin Cities suburbs, the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1dKiaAJ ) reported. It enlists Optum’s Knourish vending machines to dispense meals designed by an LHI dietitian and chefs at The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern in La Crosse, where the meals are prepared.

The “K” on Knourish is by design rather than a typo, said Libby Spirer, an operating partner at The Waterfront and one of the key players in Knourish’s development.

“There are two reasons,” Spirer said. “The first is it brings extra attention. Also, it plays off of the importance of knowledge for healthy food choices. . It’s lunch with a purpose.”

The lunch menu ranges from $5 to $8, including offerings such as mustard pork tenderloin and chicken and walnut salad, with the goal of rotating menu options regularly, Spirer said. Snacks, such as yogurt, fruit and cheese mixes and applesauce, run about $3.

In the planning stages are evening meals that can feed four to six people for employees to pick up on the way home to heat and serve, she said.

The development team is working on packaging and recipes for those meals, which must be inviting not only to employees but also their children, Spirer said.

Riverside dietitian Kristin Engstrom said the project is an ongoing one, working with The Waterfront to plan palatable, healthy selections.

“It is such a good extension of our overall wellness,” Engstrom said. “You can educate, but we also are surrounding ourselves with healthy foods.”

The vending kiosks, including a credit/debit card machine, at two sites on the LHI campus, “are really more like small stores, with a variety of fresh products” and goods such as Organic Valley beverages and V8 juices.

Planning is tight to avoid waste, Spirer said, but any leftovers have been donated to The Warming Center, The Hunger Task Force of La Crosse and The Salvation Army.

Knourish eventually may be offered to companies outside LHI, and some have shown interest, Spirer said.

Opportunities for fresh choices are expanding elsewhere, too. Among other La Crosse-area employers, Gundersen Health System and Canteen Vending Services began a program in October that offers a greater variety of healthier alternatives that meet Gundersen’s 500 Club approved in vending machines on the system’s La Crosse, Onalaska, Sparta and Tomah campuses.

On Monday, Gundersen will launch a new program called Avenue C that will be part-vending service and part-cafeteria for its Support Services Building in Onalaska, according to Jennifer Larson, the hospital system’s administrative director for nutrition and hospitality services.

Avenue C will be a self-service option including refrigerated beverages, salads and sandwiches made fresh daily, fruits and vegetables, as well as freezer cases with microwaveable frozen dinners, Larson said.

Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare also has upped its game in the fresh food field, with what it calls Smart Choice options for many soups, grab-n-go salads and salad bar items in its Market Place cafeteria, said Kathy Oslund, a registered dietitian the hospital. Mayo-Franciscan vending machines also have “healthier/wellness” options.

LHI’s Don Weber describes cultivating a healthy atmosphere for employees as “an investment, not a cost.”

“The best investment an employer can make, I believe, starts with employees and their families,” he said, which is why the company’s primary care and fitness centers are open to families.

Midwives in the primary care center accommodate expectant mothers during the workday, saving them time and stress of having to go to other clinics, he said.

“The health care in this community is one of the best in the country, but we still are one of the unhealthiest,” Weber said.

Providing workplace access to care lowers overall health care costs by curtailing unnecessary visits to emergency rooms and urgent care clinics that are more expensive, he said.

LHI’s investment in the health of its 2,000 employees’ families is paying off, he said, noting that health insurance premiums have been rising 8 to 12 percent annually in recent years, while LHI’s dropped by 13.5 percent this year.

Between 2013 and 2014, LHI tallied 1,162 fewer days of employees’ leaving campus for health-related reasons, some of which was sick time but also included time to visit the campus clinic for employees or family members, he said.

“We’ve seen a very positive return on the bottom line . as an attractive employer, the morale is up and retention is good,” he said, because employees sense that the boss cares about them and their families.

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Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com

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