Can a “meal plan” approach that requires diners to post an upfront-financial commitment work in a healthcare environment? That is an issue being explored by the dining services team at Florida Hospital.

Like most major healthcare organizations, Florida Hospital would like to encourage and support wellness among its employees. A number of years ago, it developed a wellness initiative called Healthy 100 that calls for healthier food choices in its in-house cafes.

Unfortunately, many Florida Hospital employees don't have access to those cafes and their healthy choices because they work at the system's many small scattered sites away from its seven major hospital facilities. Of Florida Hospital’s 19,000-plus employees, more than a quarter work in these satellite locations, some of which have as few as a couple dozen staffers.

“We wanted to find ways to provide healthful nutrition to employees that may have nothing but vending options otherwise,” says Don Bartlett, nutritional services administrative director for the Florida Hospital System.

In the past, dining services attempted to offer a meal delivery program that allowed staff at offsite locations to place food orders to the central kitchen and have it delivered. Unfortunately, that proved too hard to manage.

“It was way too erratic from day to day,” Bartlett says. “You could get four orders from a site one day and 40 the next. It was just not viable from a cost standpoint because you couldn’t predict how many meals you’d need to make.”

The meal plan alternative was developed by a team of six dining services associates as part of Florida Hospital's Horizon leadership development program. "It's a multidepartmental program in which teams develop project assignments to work on," Bartlett explains. "We had a team of about a half dozen at one of these sessions and they decided to take on the challenge of finding a way to extend the healthy 100 program to our offsite locations."

The meal plan approach developed by the Horizon dining team involved a three-week commitment costing $6 a day (automatically paid through a $30-payroll deduction each week). In return, the participating employee receives daily deliveries of a healthful lunch and two snacks over three weeks. The advantage for the employee is that it is convenient and costs less than comparable food would at local commercial restaurant alternatives. The lunch components are portion controlled, made fresh daily and adhere to Healthy 100 nutritional standards.

For the dining services team, the upfront commitment from customers allows the central kitchen to predict production requirements while providing a dependable, up front cash flow similar to college meal plans, though much smaller in scale.

The program was piloted (see a promotional video for it here) at one site for a three-week trial period a few years ago and showed promise, but was suspended pending resolution of concerns associated with extending it to multiple sites, especially smaller ones (the pilot had involved only one larger one so it was easier to manage). In addition, there was an issue with the three-week daily commitment because many employees are out of the office for multiple days on business and travel.

Bartlett says the team has not given up on the approach and is exploring ways to address these obstacles.