Ascension Health plans meetings that promote healthy choices

April 15, 2013


At a recent Ascension Health meeting in Phoenix, an optional half-hour hike was planned for participants. These days, when the system holds a gathering, an exercise break may be on the formal agenda.

Pitchers of water infused with cucumber slices or fresh fruit routinely are offered in addition to other beverages, in the hopes of encouraging more water consumption. And when the system's meeting planners work with hotels, they ask if the venue can donate leftover food to an area food bank or soup kitchen.

It's all part of "meeting healthy," an approach to meeting planning that

St. Louis-based Ascension Health began about a year ago to promote employee health and demonstrate mission-focused, Earth-friendly stewardship.

"It's really the big picture: how do you plan a meeting to be as healthy as possible in the broad sense of the word?" explained Lois Sechrist, a senior analyst for Ascension Health who manages day-to-day environmental stewardship for the system's hospitals and health ministries.

Toppings on the side
So far, Ascension Health has used the meeting healthy approach at about 100 meetings. The system has put together a brochure and a checklist for meeting healthy and a plan to share the program more broadly within the Ascension Health network.

The idea behind meeting healthy is to improve the design of meetings to allow participants to exercise and eat healthfully, should they chose to do so. "The big word has been Ôoptions,' making sure there are healthy options, not putting every meeting participant on a diet," explained Deborah Hopkins, Ascension Health's director of conference planning and travel services.

The effort extends way beyond, say, just cutting back on fried foods on the menu.

In many cases, Ascension Health's meeting planners have started talking directly with chefs and caterers, explaining the effort. They're asking about the fat grams in the foods that might be offered and planning menus where cheese, toppings and salad dressings can be provided on the side. They're working to have foods labeled at meals, so participants know what they're selecting. In some cases, chefs might identify something as "heart healthy" and, as a goal, Ascension Health's meeting planners would like the venue to make nutritional information available at meals, so diners can make informed food and beverage choices.

Organizers also pre-arrange healthy meal options for people with food allergies and special diets, Hopkins said.

Food as fuel
To develop its "meeting healthy" strategy, Ascension Health brought together representatives from community health, clinical excellence, communications, conference planning, its environmental stewardship program, human resources, mission integration, supply chain and the system's food service vendor. This group shared ideas, and sorted through a great deal of information to come to a consensus about the components that make for a healthier meeting, Sechrist explained.

The effort yielded tips for foods people can consume to feel more alert and able to concentrate during a meeting, which led to suggested modifications to standard snack selections, like offering nuts and popcorn instead of popcorn and pretzels, since protein has been shown to promote steady energy.

To cut down on waste, instead of providing individual serving-sized, plastic containers of yogurt at a meeting, organizers may order a large bowl of yogurt with fresh fruit toppings on the side. Attendees dish up their own portions in china bowls.

The environmental stewardship component to meeting healthy encourages serving food and drinks using reusable plates, glasses and silverware rather than paper and plastics. Sites with water stations (or with those pitchers of fruit-infused water) help to eliminate bottled water. To further reduce paper use, content organizers of meetings are encouraged to upload meeting support materials to a website, or print double-sided copies.

The initiative encourages holding meetings in places where people can walk outside, allowing for short stretch breaks between presentations and choosing meeting hotels where overnight guests have use of a fitness center.

The effort is new enough that Ascension Health doesn't yet know for sure whether the approach saves money. Those utilizing meeting healthy tips say they don't cost more, though they do require more advance planning.

Sechrist said that meeting planners have been hearing encouraging words from Ascension Health colleagues who like the changes, and appreciate the efforts to help them maintain their "energy and focus" during meetings.

Engineering healthy meetings

Here's a look at some of the factors Ascension Health considered as it created its "meeting healthy" efforts:

  • Senior analyst Lois Sechrist said meeting planners consider a triple bottom line or the economic, social and environmental impact of components of meeting design.
  • To reduce environmental waste, Ascension Health recommends serving more foods buffet-style.
  • If serving preportioned meals, Ascension Health's meeting planners suggest observing this ratio: 40 percent grains, 40 percent fruits and vegetables, 20 percent protein.
  • Meeting planners didn't want to enforce healthy behavior by restricting the choices offered meeting attendees. For example, Ascension Health hasn't eliminated sodas or sweets from the menu, but instead of serving cookies and brownies at break time, planners may offer fresh fruit along with brownies.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.