The (Joliet) Herald-News

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) _ Sree Muppa sits at a desk eight hours a day.

“Most of our jobs are desk jobs,” said Muppa, who works as a communicable disease investigator for the Will County Health Department.

But Muppa’s workday is less sedentary since she joined 34 co-workers in the department’s new organic garden program, an initiative spearheaded by the agency’s Worksite Wellness Committee as a way to promote healthier lifestyles in the workplace.

On June 30, the employees broke ground at the department’s 501 Ella Ave. facility in Joliet, with help from members of the University of Illinois Extension Center in Joliet.

The 18-plot garden is already boosting employee morale, Muppa said.

“The garden is brilliant. People get to talk and meet. We compare each other’s plot. There’s a little competition going on,” Muppa said. “It’s wonderful because you get rewarded when you see the fruit, or the flowers coming out of the ground.”

Employees get to eat the vegetables or fruits they produce, but several share plots, she said.

So far, fruits, herbs, spices and several vegetables, including squash and peppers, have been planted.

Employee Jennifer Gorszczyk serves as chairwoman on the wellness committee, which formed in 2011, after the health department entered into a partnership with Joliet Partners for Healthy Families, a coalition of local organizations aimed at combating obesity in Will County.

Gorszczyk and other employees sought to create the wellness committee in late 2011 after Joliet Partners for Healthy Families completed a Community Healthy Living Index assessment on the health department, showing poor results.

“It wasn’t good,” she said. “There was no focus on the health of the employees whatsoever.”

Since then, the committee has enacted a number of healthy initiatives, including walking trails, healthier vending machine options, weight loss competitions and poker walks. Walking trails also are located at the health department’s two branches in Bolingbrook and University Park.

The various programs have been successful, Gorszczyk said. In the past two “Biggest Loser” competitions, 75 employees lost 545 pounds, and a six-week walking competition resulted in 120 people walking 29,069 miles.

The garden is the latest initiative, Gorszczyk said.

“A lot of people don’t have room at their own homes to have a garden. This gives them a place to do it,” she said. “It also gives people time to take breaks, go outside and get physical exercise in.

Vic Reato, spokesman for the health department, said the initiatives benefit both the employer and the employee.

“Healthy employees are happy and productive employees,” he said. “And everyone benefits if we can somehow bring down health insurance premiums that all county employees pay.”

A county-wide employee wellness program also is underway.

Will County this month rolled out a new “Will Be Well” program as part of a collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME union workers in December, said Diane Zigrossi, chairwoman of the County Board’s insurance and personnel committee.

“This will educate employees about their health,” Zigrossi said. “The ultimate goal is a healthier workforce.”

Free on-site screenings will be done to check blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose levels and BMI levels, Zigrossi said. Health risk questionnaires looking into health history must be filled out by employees and their spouses, she said. All information will remain confidential, she said.

Employees who opt out of the screening or questionnaire will pay an additional $50 a month for their insurance premiums, according to program documents. It will cost an additional $25 a month if their spouses covered by the same insurance plan do not participate.