two men in blue shirts leaned against a fence rail looking at black and white dairy cows

Healthy Workforce, Healthy Community

McCarty Family Farms Looks Within to Improve Employee and Community Health

REXFORD – The tall steel structures that rise out of the ground at McCarty Family Farms in Thomas County are a dramatic interruption to the endless horizon of grassland and crop fields of the surrounding high plains. The farm is home to an onsite dairy processing facility, the result of a groundbreaking collaboration between McCarty Family Farms and international yogurt brand Dannon.

This massive operation requires a substantial workforce capable of working long days to care for the dairy cows, extract milk for production, and produce the final product for market. For the employees at McCarty’s Rexford farm, the options for food throughout the day is largely limited to two options: meals prepared and brought from home or what’s made available at the worksite. The nearest town of substantial size is Colby, 15 miles to the west. Leaving the dairy during lunch break isn’t an option, and snacks eaten during breaks often come from vending systems at the farm. The same holds true for the nearly 200 employees who work in remote locations at McCarty Family Farms throughout Kansas and Ohio.

“One of the stories we heard from the owners was about how some of the workers eat solely out of the vending machines,” said Misty Jimerson, Health Educator with the Thomas County Health Department, who worked alongside McCarty Family Farms to develop a worksite wellness program. “So we tried to work on that, to change what’s available there.”

The McCarty Family in front of evergreen trees. Four adult sons in the back row, left to right: Mike, Clay, Ken, Dave. Front row, McCarty parents: Tom and Judy.
The McCarty’s are a fourth generation farm family, originally from Pennsylvania. Their family’s operations employee roughly 200 people in dairies throughout Western Kansas and Ohio. Shown left to right, back row: Mike, Clay, Ken and Dave McCarty. Front row: Parent Tom and Judy.

As part of a Blue Cross/Blue Shield Pathways to a Healthy Kansas grant to LiveWell Northwest Kansas—which covers Thomas, Rawlins, and Cheyenne Counties, and includes community stakeholders from the health, education, and business sectors—McCarty Family Farms partnered with WorkWellKS, LiveWell Northwest Kansas, and other local stakeholders to incorporate workplace wellness into the company’s culture. McCarty Family Farms Benefits Coordinator, Keesa Mariman, knew from her previous work experience with the Thomas County Coalition that simple, one-off initiatives like weight loss challenges don’t create lasting change. That fact is supported by research from Dr. Elizabeth Ablah, associate professor in the Department of Population Health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, who leads the effort at WorkWellKS. – a collaborative organization that works in communities throughout Kansas to craft healthy policies for workplaces and communities.

“We try to help folks understand that it’s more comprehensive than that,” Dr. Ablah said. “The things that we traditionally do can often be harmful to our health. We help people build comprehensive initiatives—so there’s not the double take when you see all these newsletters with an article about ‘maintain no-gain’ for the holidays right next to a recipe for triple fudge brownies with caramel sauce.”

In November 2018, McCarty Family Farms collaborated with WorkWellKS to survey the site’s employees, asking the workforce to indicate interest in engagement and support on various health topics. The 11-item survey was structured around the WorkWellKS strategic framework to address three key risk factors—physical activity, food and beverage, and tobacco.

“We thought as one of the larger employers in the area, we could have a big impact in the community,” said Mariman. “We recognized that people want different things, so a gym membership might not appeal to everyone. We wanted to change the culture.”

The Survey Says …

The survey revealed that employees most wanted additional support in the area of healthy food and beverages. Of the company’s 175 employees, 31 percent returned the survey. Of those, 82 percent indicated a need for more help in eating healthy, followed by 62 percent who said physical activity was a top concern.

The work at McCarty Family Farms is labor intensive, and many jobs require employees to move constantly throughout the day. In fact, more than 60 percent of employees indicated they “constantly or regularly” move on the job, with very few saying that their work is sedentary.

Interestingly, a smaller percentage of employees completed the section on tobacco use and cessation, and of those, only 58 percent indicated a desire for the company to help eliminate tobacco use.

WorkWellKS suggested McCarty Family Farms work toward policies that would eliminate low-nutrient foods on the worksite, while offering free or low-cost healthy alternatives. Other suggestions included launching a campaign to increase awareness about healthy eating, posting nutritional standards in common areas. The wellness committee at McCarty developed a few other ideas—such as community gardens at the farm and healthy cooking classes for employees’ families.

“We really liked the idea of putting gardens on our farms,” Mariman said. “But we struggled to figure out how to manage a garden. A lot of our dairies aren’t in the middle of town, so we started figuring out how to stock our vending machines with at least 50 percent healthy items.”

Implementation, however, has met some challenges.

Staffing changes and increased work demands have slowed action on some of those early ideas. The initiative also met significant cultural challenges—approximately 95 percent of the McCarty workforce is Hispanic immigrants. Aside from communications barriers, there are significant dietary norms to overcome.

“A lot of the people who work for us have diets that are built around meat, grease, flour, and corn as part of their culture,” Mariman said. “Changing that culture is hard when many of our employees are just trying to put food on the table,and working to live the American Dream.”

That was part of the drive for the cooking classes and gardens. The idea was that by reaching into the homes—where spouses typically prepare the family meals—they’d be able to raise awareness of the value of healthy eating and cooking.

Despite those challenges, something bigger seems to be unfolding at McCarty Family Farms—a cultural change that has positioned the company toward healthy eating. Meetings no longer include doughnuts and fried pastries, but instead feature fruits and vegetables. There’s an ongoing evaluation of the worksite’s vending options, with more healthy drinks and snacks and fewer slots for energy drinks and high calorie candy bars.

“When we have lunch meetings, we have sandwiches and fruit instead of sandwiches and chips,” Mariman said. “We are trying to implement that in different ways, replacing high calorie snacks with yogurt, fruit, and meat and cheese trays.”

Close-up of black and white dairy cows in a barn.
McCarty Family Farms Dairy Cows

Working for Health

Dr. Ablah is passionate about changing the way we think about workplace wellness. As the director of WorkWellKS, she has helped lead a team of researchers and advocates who advance a new model for workplaces.

Traditional workplace wellness models tend to focus on individual level measurements, such as weight, blood pressure, and physical activity at work. Even if the individual is successful in taking more steps at work, or eating fewer pastries throughout the day for a period of time, the system that’s built around unhealthy behavior persists.

“We try to help them (employers) understand that they are influencing employees,” Dr. Ablah explained. “They aren’t intending to, but it tends to be the outcome. It’s rooted in all sorts of tradition, and the showing of emotion and caring. So I’m bringing doughnuts to lift your spirits, but it really lifts your blood sugar.”

Dr. Ablah offered that wellness programs should focus on the worksite, rather than the employee. If, simply by being an employee at McCarty Family Farms, an employee is eating healthier, that’s a system change that brings better, and more sustainable, results.

“People say they need more discipline, but it’s so much more complicated than that,” Dr. Ablah said. “We know that placing food and beverages in the worksite is going to make them more likely to be consumed. Why would an employer pay for that disease development twice—pay for the food and the chronic disease it helps create? A good policy they might consider is if the employer is paying for it, the food is going to be healthy.”

Aside from the potential long-term health benefits, McCarty’s management has recognized adjacent benefits to shifting the company’s culture toward healthy living.

“Employees who are healthy have fewer sick days, and they’re more productive,” Mariman said. “We also got more than 25 employees to sign up for health insurance who hadn’t before. That’s not a priority for the culture of many of our employees. But they are learning the benefits of healthcare, and from there we can move on to eating and living healthier.”

Thomas County Health Department’s leadership is passionate about Jimerson promoting the capabilities of the department and leveraging her position as the health educator to help the community integrate wellness into the workplace.

“Most people think we only work with those in poverty,” Jimerson said. “But we also work with worksites. We can do labs, biometrics. We can do that sort of stuff at a discounted price. We can come to you. You can come to the office. I can help write policy, and I have contacts throughout the state, if you want to look at systems. I was there to help Keesa however she needed, and to be her cheerleader.”

This top-down approach is critical to moving the needle on employee health. Dr. Ablah said that WorkWellKS is built around the 3-4-80 model: three risk factors—diet, physical activity, and tobacco use—contribute to four chronic conditions—heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and cancer—that account for 80 percent of premature deaths.

“These behaviors are the things we can modify,” Dr. Ablah said. “The traditional model is pretty focused on programs and providing information. We want to make sure the model we develop is based in systems. We want people to build comprehensive initiatives that promote a healthy culture.”

In its most simple form, successful programs don’t look like programs at all. Instead, they shift the cultural norms so that over time, bringing doughnuts to the workplace will not only be rare— it will elicit question and scrutiny.

Dr. Ablah offers that there is ample science to support the effort to create systems change around food, tobacco, or activity in the workplace. Permissive cultures might not overtly encourage unhealthy behavior, but in the absence of health-centered policy, acceptance of unhealthy habits is implied, even encouraged. Cultural shifts that eliminate a company’s active participation in providing unhealthy food will improve an employee’s food consumption.

“As a function of being an employee at McCarty Family Farms, I’m eating more fruits and veggies, just because I’m there,” Dr. Ablah said. “The science supports this—if I have a cupcake and I put it in front of you, you’re more likely to eat it than someone who is even just a few feet away.”

The health effects of McCarty’s efforts aren’t contained to the Rexford site. Both the city of Colby and the Thomas County government signed on with the health department to help measure employee health and work toward sustainable wellness policy. And during a recent meeting, Lon Frahm, CEO of Frahm Farmland in Colby, expressed interest in creating a healthy environment for the farm’s employees.

“He made the comment that it would be nice if someone could come out to us,” Jimerson said. “I ran over, shook his hand and told him I could help. When he asked who else was doing this, I told him about what we’ve been doing at McCarty.”

As a result of that conversation, the Thomas County Health Department has traveled to the worksite to perform health screenings to assess employee health and will work with the farm’s management to develop health initiatives.

“Those are a few of the projects that we’ve been able to bring in from working with McCarty Family Farms,” Jimerson said. “We’ve been able to give people information about where they are, and we’ve had some people make lifestyle changes from that work.”

Sign in the foreground reading "Bird City Dairy". Barn and American Flad against blue sky in the background.
Bird City Dairy, one of the McCarty Family Farms

Healthy Work

Moving workplaces to healthier systems doesn’t require massive restructuring or draconian policies that create friction with employees.

According to Dr. Ablah, it’s more important to change a company’s behavior than to focus on the individual behavior of employees. A report produced by Dr. Ablah’s team outlines the failures of traditional wellness programs. Key in that report is the idea that the inertia of established norms often stands in the way of meaningful change and progress.

“For example, sedentary work environments often unintentionally encourage employees to sit most of the day, the availability and promotion of unhealthy foods and beverages at worksites make it easy for employees to consume these products, the lack of a tobacco-free policy might result in a tobacco-supportive environment, and worksites that place a high value on working long hours with few or no breaks contribute to poor employee health.”

Additionally, simply providing information about healthy living isn’t enough to create the sort of change that can improve employee health, increase productivity, or reduce health-related expenses.

“The assumption is that recipients will understand, care about, and prioritize this information more than anything in its context, such as one’s addiction to cigarettes, family and friends who smoke, undeveloped stress management skills, and lax worksite tobacco policies.”

WorkWellKS relies on its strategic framework to build the foundation for a successful wellness program. This system focuses on gathering information and centers programs around behaviors that can be modified as well as the environmental factors that influence those behaviors.

“Comprehensive worksite wellness interventions address the behavioral root of most health problems,” Dr. Ablah writes. Once the problems are identified, worksite wellness interventions built on research-based interventions can be deployed to address the three modifiable behaviors—healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco use.

To learn more about how to improve the health of your workforce, visit workwellks.org.

Examples from Around the State

The Thomas County Health Department’s health education division can perform a number of health assessments, including blood counts, tests of liver and kidney function, cholesterol, and education about body mass index. Additionally, the department can assist any workplace in evaluating wellness needs and developing appropriate policies. For more information, contact health educator Misty Jimerson at 785-460-4596 or mjimerson@thomascountyks.gov

Livewell Johnson County – An initiative of the Johnson County Health Department, Livewell Johnson County hosts regular workshops and can help provide technical assistance to organizations that want to develop workplace wellness policies. https://livewell.jocogov.org/

The Harvey County Health Department has helped workplaces develop health policies for more than a decade. Community partners, including the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce, meet regularly to discuss the health of the community. To read more about the work, visit https://www.myctb.org/wst/pathways/successstories/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=12

Heartland Healthy Neighborhood in Shawnee County has an active workgroup that addresses workplace wellness in the community, and has been recognized by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment as a “campaign example” for its work. The group also features a text messaging program that helps users live healthier lives. http://www.heartlandhealthyneighborhoods.org/

The Health and Wellness Coalition of Wichita helps connect employers and employees to health resources in the community. It’s annual Working Well Conference highlights successes and offers additional tips and resources for workplace wellness. https://hwcwichita.org/worksite-wellness/working-well-conference