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A Method to the Menu

February 2014

By Margo Vanover Porter

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Dining services these days are mindful of multiple concerns, from students’ specific dietary needs to the sustainability of kitchen operations.

From sushi to pizza, students can find food in their dining halls that satisfies their healthy cravings, hunger pangs, medical conditions, and commitments to social responsibility.

Greasy burgers and fries, long considered a daily staple of the young and ravenous, seem to be losing a bit of their luster.

“We are seeing more students who are vegetarian or vegan, or who have specific dietary needs,” says Paul Wykes, business manager, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts. “There’s been an increased awareness of healthy dining as students look for locally produced foods and fresh ingredients.”

Conscious of their commitment to future generations and the planet, students are also insisting that their dining halls consider sustainability when preparing and serving food, he says.

Sarah Drake, registered dietician, ARAMARK Higher Education at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas, confirms both trends. “Students are into fresh and sustainable dining. You can’t go anywhere without finding a fruit smoothie or fruit-infused water, or a great display of fruits and vegetables to give out a fresh and healthy vibe to dining services.”

Advances in technology have enhanced students’ ability to pick and choose where and what they will consume, she adds. “Most students have a mobile phone or access to a computer. Making our menus available online and on mobile phones allows us to conveniently reach more students and for them to make informed decisions prior to dining. They can pull up the menus by the day or week, if they’re on an app or the Internet. They can then click on any menu item available that day and the nutrition facts will pop up, including calories per serving.” 

To get a taste of current campus dining trends, Business Officer chatted with leaders from three institutions: Stephen F. Austin State University; Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland; and Tulane University, New Orleans. 

Texans Skip Seconds

Since introducing ARAMARK’s Healthy for Life program, Sam Smith has watched the consumption of food in the dining halls diminish. “We don’t see as many seconds’ portions as we used to,” says the director of student services at Stephen F. Austin State University. 

That’s one reason why he thinks the “freshman 15” no longer holds true.

“Our students make choices every day—in the classroom and outside the classroom,” he says. “Choosing how you eat can influence your performance, your attitude, and how you live. We ask our students to look at the information we provide them before making their choices about what they’re eating. They make decisions about breakfast, about salads, about carbohydrates, about all the things that go into a day of meals. Some days they do better. Some days, they do not.” 

Each of the university’s two full cafeterias features a labeling system with colorful, easy-to-identify, leaf-shaped icons that alert students to which foods are steamed, low in fat, contain 500 calories or less, grown organically, or grown locally. In other words: healthy. 

The pillars of the Healthy for Life program are to enable, educate, encourage, and engage customers through signage, menus, and nutrition highlights, explains Drake. “All of our signage is based on a single serving,” she says. “That is clearly stated on the nutrition facts information.”

She explains that each dining hall offers a fully loaded salad bar with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and made-to-order stations. “Those are nice because we have fresh vegetables that you can sauté with your pasta or omelets or burrito. Students get to pick and choose their fresh vegetables.” 

If nothing appeals, students can wander over to the Mongolian Grill and request a variety of vegetables, including bell peppers, spinach, carrots, broccoli; three ounces of a protein such as chicken or pork; plus an Asian-inspired sauce. They can top it off with a choice of brown or white rice.

Another popular addition, according to Drake, is the hydration stations with water steeped with different fruits, herbs, and vegetables. “We may have grapefruit and cucumber-mint. Fruit-infused waters are a natural way to get flavor without the sugar found in juice, soda, or sweet tea.”

The university makes the meal plan mandatory for its 4,400 students in residence halls, with an exception for 200 students who have kitchens in their apartments. 

“We are unique in that our three dining hall meal plans for residential students are all the same price,” Smith says. “They are adjusted for your lifestyle. If you want more convenience foods, you can increase your dining hall dollars. If you want more days in the dining hall, you can buy a block plan. [The plans] vary by the number of meals and the number of variable dollars. For example, if you get the 20-meal plan, you get fewer variable dollars to spend in a retail operation, such the convenience store or Chick-fil-A.” Students can choose from plans with either 14 or 20 meals per week, or 210 meals during the semester.

Smith points out that the Healthy for Life program isn’t just for students. “We have started targeting employees to make better choices. We see this as an across-the-campus gambit.” 

Socially Committed

The 1,400 students at Washington College, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, are learning about social responsibility and sustainability in classes, in clubs, and even in their dining hall. 

“We recycle all of our aluminum, plastic, and compost with the environmental student alliance,” says Zena Maggitti, director of Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services at Washington College. “By altering the way we use equipment, we’ve reduced our electricity usage by 3,408 hours annually.”

For example, until three years ago, the first staff person to arrive in the morning would switch on all the kitchen equipment, she explains. “Now we don’t turn on the ovens until we need them. We have also reduced our water usage by 5,400 gallons by not constantly running our dish machine. We saved 21,000 hours of elec-tricity by fixing the timers and adjusting the lights to only go on when we need them.” 

She estimates that the college has reduced its food costs by 1.2 percent by making meals in-house and monitoring waste.

Last year, to celebrate Earth Day, the college raised awareness with a variety of green events, including a no-waste meal and a cooking competition in which the three campus chefs teamed up with vice presidents for a cook-off. “We had an hour to make three items,” Maggitti, says. “Because it was Monday, which is a day to practice being a ‘flexitarian,’ the recipes had to be vegan, vegetarian, and made without gluten.” She clarifies that a flexitarian is someone who actively incorporates meatless meals into his or her diet but isn’t necessarily a vegetarian.  

Washington College’s 36,000-square-foot dining facility was designed and built four years ago to U.S. Green Building Council LEED standards, reports Jim Manaro, senior vice president for finance and administration. “We did geothermal, so we have wells in the back doing all of the HVAC,” he explains. “Unique at the time we did it, that’s turned out to be a very efficient operation for us.”

When not saving energy, students are collecting cans to stave off hunger in their community, reports Joe Holt, chief of staff. Last year, members of Enactus, an international organization on campus that teaches free enterprise and empowerment among students, led a food drive that achieved national recognition and garnered 5,630 cans of food, 3,458 more than ever before.

He believes the drive’s technological twist contributed to its phenomenal success: For each student who signed up and “liked” the Chartwells Web page or followed it on Twitter, the dining services company donated a can of food to the drive. 

“Students are taking that signature program to the next level this year,” Holt says. “They’re talking to a local cannery to make a private label product for vegetables—corn, tomatoes, and other things—for the Eastern Shore food banks. The partnership with Chartwells gave them the confidence to go out and form other partnerships.”

Sharing a Meal With Neighbors

Although it left behind a legacy of devastation, Hurricane Katrina can take credit for at least one positive outcome: the joint dining plan between Loyola and Tulane universities, in New Orleans. 

“When we came back after Katrina, we realized we needed to get dining up and running as quickly as possible,” says Lisa Norris, director of dining and auxiliary services, Tulane University. “All of the universities in the city were in the same boat. We all had damage that required us to insert capital in a hurry. Loyola is literally our next-door neighbor—we’re separated by a fence. We thought if we could manage to combine our resources, we could offer students twice as much.” 

So leaders in both institutions worked out a dining partnership allowing exchange privileges for their students. “It’s a one-of-a-kind program,” says Ronald Guillory, district manager, Sodexo Campus Services, New Orleans. “We’ve branded it as Uptown Campus Dining. Loyola students can eat at Tulane, and Tulane students can eat at Loyola.” 

Both institutions benefit, he says, through capital savings. “Loyola just recently completed a $1.5 million food court renovation last summer,” he says. “That renovation didn’t cost Tulane a dime, but its students have full access to it.” 

According to Norris, executives from both institutions meet several times a year to decide which food stations each will feature in their dining halls. “To save resources, one campus might offer a burger place, for example, and the other a Mexican concept,” she says. “A station costs anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000. By working together, we can expand our offerings without duplication.”

Responding to student and parent requests, both dining halls make every effort to meet special dietary needs. “We have incorporated hormone-free and antibiotic-free products on our campus,” Guillory says. “We tell students, ‘If there is something specific you want or need or have an issue or concern, here is the chef’s card. Give a call.’”

A trend that is creating a buzz on both campuses is the addition of weekend food trucks. “We started the concept this fall because we wanted more offerings on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights,” he explains. “We decided to bring them on our campuses between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. That’s been working well.”

One truck sells New Orleans favorites, such as shrimp, red beans and rice, and jambalaya, along with the usual burgers and tacos. Another truck, Dat Dog, specializes in too-many-to-count types of sausages, including alligator and duck. “We continue to look for additional mobile options,” Guillory says.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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