The Big Idea 2014: Interactive training in dietary restrictions

Gail Finan
Director of Cornell Dining
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Cornell Dining senior management, including myself, participated in a five-day challenge to eat at campus facilities while following one of six specific dietary restrictions: vegetarian, vegan, dairy free, gluten free, kosher, and dairy and gluten free.

The 5 Days Challenge was designed to create an understanding among staff of what it is like to live with a food restriction and suggest how to develop creative ways to eat on campus when restricted, while broadening the knowledge and awareness of our management staff to our customers’ cultures, personal values and food allergies. We believed we were doing really well serving students with dietary restrictions, but we thought it would be good to immerse ourselves and figure out how we’re really doing.

During the challenge, meals eaten were to include breakfast, lunch and dinner each day and participants were required to document at least once per day in the “5 Days in the Life” blog, sharing descriptions and photos of their meals and writing about their experiences. We would visit undercover or sometimes we would wear our neon green challenge shirts so students and other customers could ask us questions and learn about the experiment. With advance marketing of the event, our students were aware of what we were doing and we had total buy-in. In addition to senior staff, more than 30 chefs, dining managers, staff members and students signed up to take part and visit the dining units as well.

The challenge was a success for a number of reasons. First, it was a great team-building experience. Our dining staff became very involved, sharing suggestions and recommendations that fit within the diets and even checking back-of-house labels to confirm an item’s ingredients.

One of the things we found out through the experiment is that we don’t offer a lot of good vegan alternatives for breakfast. So we’re going to add more options for vegans. We might have come to that conclusion anyway, but we came to it more quickly with the 5 Days Challenge.

The bigger issue that came up is that we have 31 units and we know we can’t be everything to everyone. And while food allergies are multiplying geometrically, the majority of people don’t have allergies, so we have to find a balance of what we’re offering that satisfies people, with or without restrictions. But there’s no reason that our food shouldn’t taste good to whoever is eating it.

Finally, many of us didn’t know how to blog, so we learned how. We are definitely a better dining services department because of this challenge and we will do this next year as well. It really was the best experience of my professional life—I’m not exaggerating.