Healthier Food: Implementing a Sustainable Foods Program at Inova Health System


  • Improved employee health, less $ spent on employee healthcare
  • Enhanced visibility & presence and improved relationships with local community
  • More dollars spent locally, keeping more $ in the community for a longer time
  • Employee engagement in sustainability programming
  • Increased customer satisfaction with menu offerings

The Problem

On a whole, the healthcare industry is serving highly processed, unhealthy foods which have both direct and indirect negative impacts on health. Production processes contaminate the environment and are unsustainable in the long-run, while unhealthy consumption habits continue to contribute to the obesity epidemic and other long-term health issues. Healthcare organizations are challenged with overhauling their food service systems to be more socially responsible and offer more healthful options.

The Strategy Selected

Inova Health System saw an overhaul of its food services program not only as an opportunity to engage patients, visitors and employees, but also as a tool to promote and enhance the health of its local community.

The team charged with leading this “sustainable foods overhaul” identified six key program objectives which would inform the evolution of Inova’s food services program:

  • Increased healthfulness of food options
  • Increased local, seasonal offerings
  • Increased financial support of local farmers and businesses
  • Increased access within community to healthy foods
  • Increased awareness of how to make healthy food choices
  • Minimized environmental impacts of food purchased

Implementation Process

The Team:

  • Sustainability Coordinator
  • Food Services department
    • Director
    • Chefs
    • Front-line employees
  • Community Affairs department
  • Administration
  • Nutritionists

Inova engaged in a multi-prong approach to developing its sustainable foods program, involving different stakeholder groups in the conversation and targeting both internal and external audiences.

Externally, Inova became a sponsor of the Northern Virginia Chapter of Buy Fresh, Buy Local. Through this program, Inova provided educational materials to over 10,000 community members. It was also the vehicle used by Inova to support the SNAP Double Dollar program at local farmers markets, where Inova subsidized the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables for lower-income community members. As a result of this program, 75% of consumers increased the amount of fresh produce they purchased at the markets and 100% of vendors reported increased sales.

Internally, Inova focused on evaluating its efforts, identifying possibilities for improvement and engaging cafeteria customers in the sustainable foods dialogue. The sustainability team worked with Food Services to track monthly spending on local produce and to audit the healthfulness and environmental impacts of available food choices. Programs such as farmers markets, CSA programs, cooking classes, cook-offs, cooking demonstrations, free giveaways, and featured seasonal produce were implemented and a variety of educational signage and marketing materials were developed.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

One of the most difficult issues in implementing this program was pre-existing consumer preferences and the challenge of shifting the focus away from unhealthy foods. The geographical availability, consistency and cost of local food options were also factors which needed to be overcome, and were ultimately addressed through leveraging vendor partnerships. Additionally, managing the internal change process and developing relevant educational materials were key considerations.

Demographic Information

Inova Health System is a large integrated delivery network of 5 hospitals with 1,700 beds and 16,000 employees. It is Northern Virginia’s leading not-for-profit healthcare provider, serving more than 1 million people each year and governed by a volunteer board of community members. It is a nationally recognized, comprehensive network of hospitals, outpatient services, assisted and long-term care facilities and healthcare centers located throughout Northern Virginia.