Howell found that an earlier attempt to provide nutritional information had not fared well, so he had to rebuild employee trust in the accuracy of the program. "We bought some new software to enter in our recipes and that has gotten the biggest response from everyone," he says. "I got flooded with e-mails the first two weeks telling me 'this is exactly what I need to determine what I can and cannot eat down there.' Now if I don't have the nutritionals out there every day I hear about it fast."
It's a time-saver too. Employees with only 30 minutes for lunch can access the daily menu at their desks and pick out what they want ahead of time, which also leads to healthier, better-informed selections. It's like going to the supermarket with a list drawn up beforehand.
At the urging of hospital senior management, Howell combed through existing recipes to make them healthier. "It's a lot easier when you have the administration supporting you. So, we've been able to make some changes in the recipes that weren't there to make the foods healthier, such as adding half turkey and half beef to the meatloaf, or making the cream sauces with non-fat milk," he says. "These are changes the public doesn't even realize we've done."
Howell says he's been pleasantly surprised by the employees' response to the program. "We are looking at 20% to 30% participation, which is a lot higher than what I was expecting, which was about 18% to 25% of total cafeteria sales," he says.
In addition to Better Choices, Lexington provides employees with an optional in-house physical assessment that targets health goals like weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol reductions. As an incentive, participating employees are given a small deduction from their health insurances costs, which amounts to $10 a month. Lexington also encourages Weight Watchers, Biggest Losers, and other weight-loss programs, and intramural contests to see which employee groups can shed the most pounds.
In May, armed with months of data, Howell says he'll review Better Choices to see where it can be tweaked, both in cost-effectiveness, and in employee participation. He says Lexington may look at incentives like lowering prices of healthier foods and raising prices of less healthy items to encourage better diets.
For anyone trying to entice employees toward healthier eating, Howell says be patient, because you're trying to alter decades-long, entrenched, lifestyle choices. "If you try to change a culture it's not something you can do overnight," he says. "You have to go slow and steady knowing that your goal is going to be attained eventually but it is going to take a long time."
(If you want more information about Better Choices, or you're thinking about setting up a similar program at your hospital, Steve Howell says he'd be happy to help. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)