Marketing Healthy

Operators offer tips on actually promoting healthy items.

As colleges and universities across the country join the movement to offer healthier and more nutritious foods, foodservice directors are faced with the challenge of marketing those healthy foods to students and faculty members alike. FSD checked in with a couple of foodservice pros to see how they’re getting the word out on campus, whether through better labeling, innovative student activities or good old face time.

I’ll Take Fish for $100: Some of the more innovative marketing programs are happening at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where the foodservice department sponsors a variety of special events to promote its healthful initiatives.

“During the Brain Food workshop, students created their own trail mix from an assortment of brain-healthy foods that help with memory and concentration, especially important during exam week,” says Matthew Moss, resident district manager for Aramark at the university. Students also had the chance to play “Nutrition & Fitness Jeopardy,” an interactive game modeled after the television show and geared to teach them about wellness and nutrition.

Special Dietary Chef Arnie Prieb conducts demonstrations in residential restaurants each semester to promote different menu options and recipes for those with dietary needs. The chef holds tastings featuring foods such as gluten-free penne pasta salad and quinoa mango salad. “Dine with the Director” gives students an opportunity to share a meal with dining directors, provide feedback and voice their concerns. At dietary needs forums, such as the recent Celiac Forum, students meet location directors and chefs to find out whom to contact for food and nutrition related questions.

On-going programs include “Outside the Box,” which dedicates one clearly marked station of six gluten-free options offered daily, as well as vegetarian and vegan choices. Other stations similarly display food allergy warnings and a color-coded system for diners highlighting dietary needs such as vegetarian, vegan, lactose-free and nut-contamination.

For students without specific dietary issues, general nutritional values of traditional menu items are prominent on “Nutrition Central,” a large visual display inside the college’s three residential restaurants.

Moss emphasizes the importance of strong communication between dining services and the students. “We are always soliciting feedback to ensure that we are aligned with the wants and needs of the campus community.”

The end result is worth it. “While we cannot replace the kitchen table at home, it is important for students to feel as though we put the same care and consideration into preparing their food,” Moss says.

Multi-tiered approach: To promote the dining department’s “Eat Well, Live Well, Be Well” program at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo., Brittney Stuard, RD, nutrition and employment manager, takes a multi-tiered approach. She places healthy tips throughout the dining centers at point-of-choice locations, such as the beginning of the salad bar, making students aware of vegan, vegetarian and healthy choice options. One tip might remind students what a serving of salad dressing is, while another suggests adding nuts or seeds for additional nutrients.

Brochures describing the program are distributed to the dining centers, main office and throughout other areas on campus. Table cards on all the dining hall tables keep students informed of nutrition information, and menus feature clear symbols next to food items to indicate healthier choices.

Outside the dining halls, Stuard takes advantage of face-to-face teaching moments during nutrition presentations and classes she offers students on-campus to keep them educated. She also includes articles and reminders in the staff newsletter during the year.

Student input offered through comment cards and student representatives lets Stuard know her department’s efforts are working, but she still sees room for improvement.

“Make sure you get as much feedback as possible from your audience before you put it out there,” advises Stuard, who spent time researching how other schools promoted their programs. “I think we could have done more piloting and testing of the program with our audience before we rolled it out,” so that the program would be better tailored to the students’ needs. Stuard says they plan to re-work the program to emphasize the more successful components, such as the student presentations.

Stressing local: The setting of Appalachian State University isn't known for its local foods. Enter Local Food Day, a monthly initiative on the Boone, N.C., campus to introduce fresh, local options to the students. To get the word out, Art Kessler, director of food services, starts with website promotion and then distributes flyers at the locations where they’ll serve local food, announcing the news. Because the campus is relatively small, Kessler says that his staff notes more new faces at dining locations on Local Food Day and the response from students and faculty has been positive.

A primary goal for the department is to get more connected to student customers. To that end, the website was created around two years ago. “We felt we were behind the times and needed to set up a nutritional website,” says Kessler.

The department hired a foodservice “specialist,” a professional to work on the website and create a presence on social media. Students with special dietary needs such as gluten and lactose free often have the most questions. They post their concerns through Facebook and Twitter and the specialist immediately directs them to Kessler for quick responses.

His department also utilized information gathered from the National Association of College and University Food Services’ benchmarking survey to determine what interested faculty and students. His staff discovered that students’ primary concerns focused on sustainability and nutrition. A link to MyNutrition allows students to make meal choices that are nutritionally balanced and “to screen the dining units identify foods with common allergens.” The website also promotes Healthy Select, a dining unit dedicated exclusively to vegetarian and vegan meals.

The website has made all the difference, says Kessler, in the department’s effort to connect with students. “We see big increases in website hits right after we post our monthly newsletter, which outlines our upcoming events and specials,” he says.

There is also an uptick on Sundays, he says, when students and faculty check out the menus for the coming week.

General nutritional information is also posted in dining halls, but Kessler worries about negatively impacting the ambience of the area with too many signs. “We try and make it like a restaurant…we’re here to give them an oasis on campus,” he adds.