Technology Aids University’s Health Efforts

At North Carolina State, QR codes and e-minders are used to alert students to valuable info.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

RALEIGH, N.C.—The Dining Services department at North Carolina State University is continually coming up with new ways to help students on the meal plan eat more healthfully. Among the latest ventures are QR codes at the point of sale to give students nutrition information about various menu items, and e-minders to tell students what’s new, as well as solicit their opinions on new products.

“This university is very engineering focused,” explains Lisa Eberhart, R.D., the staff dietitian for University Dining. “So we try to come up with ways to use technology to communicate with students.”

Eberhart says the idea for the QR codes came from her belief that having nutrition info on cards at the point of sale isn’t the most effective means of communication.

“I’m not a fan of having calories and fat all in your face when you’re ordering,” she says. “People who are obsessing about such information will notice it even more, while people who really do need the information don’t really see it. By using the QR codes, we’ve made it into a novelty. It has made people want to look for the information.”

By scanning the code with a smartphone while standing on the serving line, customers can get all relevant nutrition data as well as a list of ingredients, so that students with food allergies and gluten intolerance can see which items to avoid.

E-minders are email alerts sent to students periodically to provide them with
new information on a number of issues.

“When students sign up for a meal plan, I ask them a number of questions, such as whether they are vegetarian or vegan or if they have any food allergies or intolerances,’ Eberhart says. “Then, when something of value comes up, such as a new menu item, we can send off an e-minder to those students who would be most interested.

“For example, we just introduced crispy tofu in our Asian concept,” she adds. “So we sent an e-minder to vegetarians and vegans to tell them about it.”
The e-minders also can be used to ask students for their opinions about new menu items, a service that proved invaluable when University Dining introduced a new yogurt.

“The new yogurt was more tart, more like a Greek-style yogurt, and we found out very quickly that students didn’t like it,” Eberhart recalls.

Most recently, an e-minder was sent to students with a gluten intolerance to tell them that, for Valentine’s Day, there was an alternative dessert to the brownie bar that was offered. Students were told that the dessert, a flourless chocolate torte, would not be placed on the serving line; they would have to ask for it.
“One of the benefits for us was that, by making the students ask for it, our staff could see who were the students seeking gluten-free foods,” Eberhart explains.