Students learning 'balance'

Sodexho’s Balanced Way program touts healthful eating over plethora of fad diets to students at four southern universities.

The “science” of dieting has become so convoluted that if it were a person it would be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. South Beach, Zone, Atkins, Pritikin, low-fat, no-fat, high-protein and low-carb, and variations of them all jostle each other for space on bookstore shelves and for acceptance in Americans’ stomachs.

Into this fray comes Sodexho’s Campus Services division with a distinctly contrarian approach: Diets are overrated; what’s more important is that people eat balanced meals, prepared healthfully.

To prove its point Sodexho has begun piloting a new program called The Balanced Way. The initiative was rolled out this fall at four Southern college campuses: Mississippi University for Women in Columbus; the Oxford College of Emory University in Atlanta; Guilford College, Greensboro, NC, and Georgetown (KY) College.

“What we are trying to do is change people’s attitudes about foods, to influence their eating behavior,” says Celia Daniels, culinary director for the Southeast region of Sodexho Campus Services. “Americans are so good at dieting, we don’t know how to eat. The Balanced Way can teach people they don’t have to diet.”

To draft The Balanced Way, Sodexho tapped the expertise of Franceen Friefeld, R.D., author of the book “Fill Up, Not Out: A Healthy Approach to Weight Control for Life.” Friefeld formerly was Sodexho’s national director of corporate nutrition.

“Most people don’t understand how or what to eat for weight control,” says Friefeld. “There is a lack of education. College students especially are under a lot of stress, they look at food as comfort, and then they turn to fad diets to lose weight.”

No sacrifice: The basic premise of The Balanced Way is that it is possible to eat full meals without sacrificing most favorite foods. The method focuses on eating a variety of foods that are relatively low in calorie density, so that you can eat more and “fill up” without consuming an unhealthy amount of calories. A basic Balanced Way plate consists of 50% fruits and/or vegetables, 25% protein-rich foods and 25% whole-grain and fiber-rich carbohydrates.

“We basically can fill your plate with your favorite foods, prepared with a healthy twist,” says Friefeld. “It’s not less food but different portions.”

To develop The Balanced Way, Sodexho conducted a series of focus groups to find out what students wanted from their campus food services. Then, a culinary team spent three months developing a number of Balanced Way plates for various stations found in college dining halls. ”We analyzed all menus and developed plates based on their nutritional analysis,” Friefeld explains. “One by one we came up with plates that had less than 600 calories and less than 30% of their calories from fat.”

Ask first: Balanced Way plates are offered at three stations: International, Classics and Pizza. When students at the pilot schools order their entrees, the server will ask them if they want the item prepared “the balanced way.” If the student says “yes,” the entrée will be combined with appropriate sides to make up the proper plate.

Thus far, the major component of the program has been a seven-week marketing blitz, as Sodexho moved to saturate the campuses with the Balanced Way message. During the first week, foodservice staffs plastered their campuses with flyers, and foodservice managers met with campus administrators, residence life staff, campus wellness coordinators and leaders of various student groups and Greek organizations.

During the second week, follow-up flyers were posted on campus. In the third week, which was timed to coincide with the arrival of students for the fall semester, resident students were given bottles of water wrapped in a “koozie” that read The Balanced Way as they checked in to their dorms. Also in that week, Sodexho staff wore buttons that read, “The Balanced Way is coming.”

Breakfast bundles: In Week Four, one week before the official launch of the program, foodservice staff wore buttons that read “Is Your Plate Balanced?” On one morning that week, residents received breakfast bundles in bags with the slogan “Start Your Day The Balanced Way.” The bundles contained a specially prepared “breakfast cookie,” a banana and a four-ounce cup of low-fat yogurt.

The program was launched in Week Five. All that week, students were offered Get In The Mix trail mix, which combined whole-grain cereals with peanuts, dried fruit and chocolate candies. They also received participation cards that invited them to take part in a number of program-related activities over the course of the semester. Students who complete the activities will be entered into a special drawing.

Staff wore new buttons, which read “May I Serve You The Balanced Way?” Faculty and staff were given frequency cards, which offered them a free meal with the purchase of 10 Balanced Way meals.

Pitching in: As part of the campaign, students have been invited to contribute to The Balanced Way menu in two ways. One is the Feed Your Brain Challenge and the other is the Food Makeover Challenge.

In Feed Your Brain, team of students and faculty compete against each other to create the best-tasting healthy treat. In Food Makeover, students are being asked to try to “stump the dietitian” by suggesting a dish that would seem impossible to recreate in a healthier format. One dish will be chosen and rewritten to meet The Balanced Way requirements, and then named after the student who suggested it and served in the dining hall.

Daniels notes that early returns seem to indicate that The Balanced Way has caught students’ attention. For example, recent dinner numbers from Guilford College suggested that as many as 84% of diners were choosing a Balanced Way plate on any given night. She adds that other university accounts are asking for the program; another college will be added in January and a larger rollout could occur next fall.