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Helping New Moms with--Wait, a Vending Machine?

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At the sprawling Johns Hopkins University and Health Care System, support for breastfeeding employees is not just a one-off policy or accommodation, it's a comprehensive program. And it's been some time in the making.

Johns Hopkins comprises both a string of health care facilities, including Johns Hopkins Hospital, itself, and the university, which offers undergraduate and graduate programs across six campuses (plus some additional facilities) in Baltimore, the District of Columbia, and surrounding areas. A stipulation of the founder's will keeps the business aspects of the health care and university organizations separate, but fortunately, the university's Office of Work, Life and Engagement serves employees of both sectors.

Johns Hopkins employs about 40,000 people, and first started assessing how it was doing with lactation support about six years ago, in response to new regulations included in the Affordable Care Act. The health care system already had some lactation rooms and even lactation consultants, but they didn't serve employees working in the many university-based buildings. So a first step to comprehensive breastfeeding support was to transfer ownership from the hospital's Pediatrics department to work-life. This is where Meg Stoltzfus came in. Meg's title is Lifespan Services Manager, and she and her team were tasked with creating a more holistic, all-encompassing approach to supporting the breastfeeding moms on staff.

First, the rooms ...

The team quickly realized that many employees didn't have access to lactation rooms (which are called "mothers' rooms" at Johns Hopkins). So they worked with leadership to greatly expand the number of rooms across their many locations, and ensure both new and existing rooms were well equipped.

Today, having added 16 rooms to the existing three--with an additional three under construction--this part of the job is nearly done. All the rooms now have hospital-grade breast pumps, and nearly all are equipped with refrigerators, sinks, and microwave ovens. In addition, women can use an employer-provided discount to purchase the personal accessory kits needed for breast pump use.

...and then still more

But Meg and her team were determined that support for new mothers would not stop at mothers' rooms. They developed break time policies tailored to the separate staffing situations of the health system and university. They created a guide for managers and supervisors, including not just information about policies and programs but the business reasons behind those policies.

They even created a sheet of tips by managers, for managers. This last was serendipitous. As part of her research for the managers' guide, Meg reached out to women who had used the mothers' rooms, asking them to identify managers who had been particularly supportive. Then she contacted those managers to see if they had advice to share with their colleagues.

"My email blew up," she says. "I got so much information and so many wonderful tips about how managers actually make this work that I decided to develop a separate tip sheet just to share them!"

Finally, in order to ensure that employees saw all of this as a comprehensive program, they put effort into branding it, coming up with a logo and a specific, consistent look for all related materials.

It's all about the data.

Women who want to use the mothers' rooms are asked to register in advance, giving the work-life team an opportunity to send them details not only on how to use the rooms but on other aspects of the program, such as the personal kit discounts and breastfeeding classes. But the registration serves another purpose, too.

Johns Hopkins is a research institute, and data plays an important role in decisions about programs and policies. So data collection is built right into the lactation program. Once women are registered, they swipe their ID cards to get access to the rooms. The result is a gold mine of data--not just how many women are using the mothers' rooms and how often, but which locations are getting the biggest usage and where new rooms might be needed. And all this data has been hugely helpful in "selling" the program to senior leadership.

But the most innovative feature of all is the vending machine.

That's right, the vending machine. Moms, Meg comments, are exhausted. When they're home, they're thinking about being with their new baby. When they head to work, it may be all they can do to remember to pack lunch.

As the main contact for the breastfeeding program, Meg found herself getting frantic calls at all hours: a mom had forgotten the breast pump tubing, or a bottle, or the whole personal kit. Since the majority of employees work in the hospital, most of the calls came from there--and they came at all hours. Meg' office is in another location, but she found herself stockpiling supplies, then regularly jumping into her car to bring them to mothers in need.

Something needed to be done. She tried stocking the lactation rooms with basic supplies, to be taken on the honor system, but the supplies regularly diminished, nobody notified her, and she was back to square one. The problem was too big, and she was at a loss to solve it.

Then one day, hurrying to catch a plane, she noticed an airport vending machine that sold not food, but items like earbuds and iPods. Eureka!

"I need a self-service option that's available 24 hours a day--that's a vending machine!" she thought.

As soon as she returned from her trip, Meg started researching. She discovered that one can buy a vending machine and customize it to sell just about anything. Nonetheless, arranging for a customized machine that would meet employees' needs would turn out to be a two-year process.

Once she had chosen a vendor, Meg had to work through all kinds of questions: what should she stock it with (the size and shape of items stocked would affect the design), who would keep it stocked, how would users pay? (In the end, she opted to do the re-stocking herself, and went for a credit/debit card- only, system.)

Even when the machine was finally installed, in the room with the second-highest usage (thank goodness for all that data), Meg continued to tinker. Employees loved it, but they also had a lot of comments and requests; between this and usage data from the machine, itself, she revised--repeatedly--the stock. This, in turn, required working with a local technician from the vending machine company to adjust the actual machinery.

After nearly two years, Meg is getting ready to expand: she's working on adding machines at a few more high-usage locations.

Meg notes that if an employer wanted, they could probably make up the cost for purchasing, customizing and servicing the machine through sales. Johns Hopkins decided on a different model, however, treating the vending machine as a benefit, and selling items at cost--which, given that the hospital can order supplies at a bulk discount--is considerably less than they'd pay retail. The result truly is a benefit to employees, many of whom use the machine not just as an emergency fallback but as a convenient place to shop on a regular basis.

While the vending machine has been a huge success, Meg stresses that it is just one aspect of a comprehensive program:

"There's so much more to pumping than just having the stuff. If you didn't have supportive managers and you didn't have a place to go to pump, the vending machine wouldn't mean much."

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at