If food systems are to be transformed to provide more sustainable, healthier diets, they will require more demand for sustainably produced foods that constitute a healthier diet as well as an increased supply of specific foods. Food demand is typically the result of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of individually made decisions. Finding ways that food demand can be moved to actually change incentives for suppliers, then, is a challenge.
Further, rapid urbanization in low- and middle-income countries is creating more challenges for food systems. Urban life is characterized by greater involvement of women in the labor force, limited time availability or lack of cooking facilities, and exposure to food environments that abundantly offer unhealthy, convenient, and often ultra-processed ready-to-eat foods. Urban areas struggle with multiple burdens of malnutrition, simultaneously facing undernutrition and an increasing prevalence of overweight, obesity, and diet-related noncommunicable diseases.
In countries where manufacturing is growing, institutional catering, or employer-provided on-site meals, provide a promising avenue for catalyzing food systems changes. There are several reasons why the provision of nutritious meals at workplaces may be beneficial for both a company and its workers. It can improve goodwill among the workforce while keeping workers on premises. Better nutritional status may increase productivity. In addition, the demand for different types of foods has the potential to cause ripple effects through agri-food value chains all the way to producers, and shift production patterns toward more nutrient-dense foods.
To explore the potential for this mechanism, our multidisciplinary team from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), le centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), and l’Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD) conducted formative research in three countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Senegal. These countries share characteristics that make them promising candidates for such an intervention:
Before the intervention can take place, one must know whether workplaces already provide meals for their employees. In Cambodia, while the government is currently encouraging meals to be provided in RMG factories, our research suggests that most workers prefer not to receive meals from their employers. At present, the largest concentration of factories providing meals for employees are explicitly exporting to the European market, where factory owners feel meal provision helps with demonstrating positive employee welfare. The SUN Network is working with factories to improve the nutrition content of meals when they are provided. In Bangladesh, regulations now require factories with more than 100 workers to provide a canteen where meals are sold. Nonetheless, only a small share of RGM factories provide meals in Bangladesh. Among factories providing them, there has been some effort to improve their nutritional content. In Senegal, most factories do provide meals on site to their workers at a subsidized prices, and workers are very much attached to the Ceebu Jen (literally rice with fish). Our research suggests that innovations towards healthier meals should start from this popular meal, adding more vegetables into the recipes, and substituting maize and millet for white rice, for example.
There is clearly potential to improve worker well-being and productivity by providing nutritious, healthier meals. In fact, our research suggests that in Cambodia, there is a notable drop in productivity in the afternoon in factories where meals are not provided. But our research has also begun to identify some complex issues related to demand for such meals. In Cambodia, we found that workers see meals as in lieu of part of their wages, and they tend to prefer higher wages, so they might object to being provided meals, even if they are healthy. Yet, a GAIN study in Bangladesh found that most workers in factories providing hot meals preferred the food over a food allowance. In Senegal, workers tend to prefer the meals provided by the factory, especially as they tend to be subsidized, and the “gustative” quality of the meals can be a subject of complaint to the management in case of dissatisfaction. In Cambodia, though, in factories not providing hot meals, nearly all workers are reported to prefer a cash allowance over food being provided.
While introducing meals has the potential to improve nutritional status and increase productivity, it may simultaneously create a more disgruntled workforce. Careful planning and internal promotion of institutional catering to a factory’s workforce will thus be key to success of this type of intervention. From a policy perspective, government intervention such as either direct or indirect incentives might be needed to push more factories to offer catering. An alternative could come externally—export-oriented industries are subject to demands from importing countries. If those importing countries add healthy meals to demands for working conditions, companies making those goods are likely to follow.
Tomoé Bourdier and Elodie Maitre d'Hotel are research fellows at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). Alan de Brauw and Jef Leroy are senior research fellows at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Eric Verger is a research fellow at the French Research Institute for Development (IRD).
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