Natural Food Training

A delicious staff benefit that builds better employees

Twelve Community Mercantile employees gather around a big table in the co-op’s community room. We’re sharing a meal of baked tofu, steaming hot kale, three different kinds of baked winter squash, and a pan of wheat-free cornbread. Most of the employees don’t know each other very well because they are new hires, except for John. This is the third time he has joined us for our three-hour natural food training for staff.

Our natural food training class is required of all new Merc employees. They are given a $.25/hour pay increase upon completion of the class. An additional $.25/hour raise is given when an employee successfully passes her or his first 30-day evaluation. We recognize that by giving employees guidance, support, and training when they are new to the co-op, they not only make better employees, providing better customer service, but additionally we benefit from lower staff turnover.

We encourage all employees to continue their training through our in-store staff training program that allows employees, like John, to be paid to repeat natural food training once a year. Additionally, employees can choose to take one or two of our community classes per year on the clock, as long as the class is related to their work. To be paid, they have their supervisor sign a staff training form that they then use to enroll in the class.

Our natural food training class was established eleven years ago and continues to be an evolving, dynamic program that reflects the constant changes in our industry and in the field of nutrition. There are components of the class that form the core of the curriculum and elements that are different each time it is taught. Of course, the class is also highly impacted by the particular mix of staff, with some groups being highly participatory and others being more reserved.

What our training looks like
Because most of the staff attending the training are new employees, we make an effort to create a comfortable and welcoming environment. The tone of the class is set when an employee enters the room. We are fortunate to have an ideal space on site. Our community room, with its attached kitchen, is where we hold all of our classes.

The room has already been prepared when employees arrive, each place set with a plate, mug, cloth napkin, handouts, and beverages. We begin each training session with a small meal, and that in itself is a great teaching tool. The prepared meal reflects the foods of the season and gives us the opportunity to discuss each food choice. This is also the time to introduce ourselves and prepare for a packed three hours of learning.

Following the meal we either conduct a store tour or present a video. Most recently we’ve been showing a 40-minute video, “Organic Agriculture and Food,” produced by the California Certified Organic Farmers ( Other times we use the 13-minute video, “The Real Scoop About Diet and Exercise,” that is part of our upper elementary/junior high curriculum. Although this video (from the Center for Science in the Public Interest—unfortunately, no longer available for purchase) is geared for younger audiences, it gives us the opportunity to tell employees about our educational outreach. We also like that employees are familiar with the same information that hundreds of Lawrence, Kansas school children (many of whom shop at the Merc with their parents) have learned.

Following the video or store tour we review some basics of label reading. Much of what consumers need to know can be found on product labels if employees learn how to read and understand the information presented. We cover information on the new USDA organic labeling, how to understand fat and sodium content in products, and the relevancy of serving sizes. We have found that lots of visual aids and actual product examples make the information more real. Especially effective are the 65 Jenga blocks representing a days worth of fat. We use them to “buy” food items so that employees can understand fat in the context of a day’s fat allotment.

Soy, wheat-free, and Atkins
The next part of the training is devoted to product-specific information. Soyfoods are covered in depth, including comparative taste tests of at least seven brands of soymilk and at least five soy-based protein bars. We talk about how to introduce products to customers who are new to soy and how to make product recommendations.

Wheat-free and gluten-free products are discussed and sampled, including fresh baked wheat-free brownies. We look at various resources available in our store to help customers with wheat-free questions. Particularly helpful is a written guide and other support information we obtained from the Celiac Sprue Association (

In response to the steady popularity of the Atkins diet we also cover low-carb foods. We field many questions about this diet and brand-specific low carb products, some of which we carry. Employees need to be familiar with these products, sample them, and be able to suggest other healthy alternatives, like seitan, that can easily fit into a low carb diet.

And the best part is…
About the time class participants have been sitting long enough, we take a break, but with an assignment. Staff members are asked to go out into the store and find a product that they would like to sample and know more about. We ask that they choose products that do not require complex preparation. After a 15-minute break, each employee returns with a chosen product and records the price of the product on an in-store transfer sheet. We then go around the table to give each employee a chance to share the reason for her or his product choice. The employee then prepares and shares their food item with the rest of the group. Although it is sometimes a discordant selection of food to sample in one sitting, it is also completely different with each class, always educational, and very fun.

The last ten minutes of class is devoted to filling out anonymous class evaluations. Employees are asked simply: what was good about the class, what would you have done differently, and any additional comments. The responses help us improve our program. They are also an indication that we are on the right track. Employees continue to respond positively to the training. The information they receive in training is important to them. Equally important is the way we present the information—with thoughtfulness and care. And, like John, they come back, often more than once.

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