UMass goes all in on health with dining renovation

Published in FSD Update

When you set out to create the healthiest and most sustainable dining hall in the nation, you’d better do your best to deliver. That was the challenge that dining services at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, set for itself with the renovation of its Hampshire Dining Commons, according to Garett DiStefano, director of residential dining. The dining hall, which opened in September, focuses on serving minimally processed foods, more plant-based seasonal items, more sustainable seafood, and healthier oils, fats and beverages. DiStefano says the 46,000-square foot facility, which is part of a $15.5 million revitalization of the building, was designed around UMass Dining Services’ four guiding principles: healthy eating, sustainability, world flavors and community.

“We wanted this dining hall to really be all about the food,” DiStefano says. “The design of the commons is really unique. It’s a very simple New England-inspired design that is in an oval shape, which we call ‘the egg.’ It allows us to have display cooking at every station.”

The dining hall features 12 different concepts: a chef’s table, a trattoria, a produce station (salad bar), a noodle station, street foods concept, stir-fry, Latin foods, a grill, the bakeshop, sushi, a deli and a gluten-free/vegan/vegetarian station. Health and sustainability are at the forefront of every station. In fact, the dining commons is the only place on campus that does not serve soda. DiStefano says the concepts were developed after consulting with outside chefs and surveying student.

“We survey the students about twice a year and we have about a 25% response rate, which is pretty good,” DiStefano says. “Our students were telling us that fruits and vegetables, whole grains and local products are all very important to them. At the same time, we saw about a 15% reduction in soda consumption. In order to walk the [healthy] walk, we had to focus on creating healthy food with craveable flavors. We also really want to showcase our sustainability in its truest sense. That’s the impetus of this dining commons. At the location this fall, we’ve been able to serve 80% local produce. Plus, we’ve been able to incorporate our SPE-certified healthy meals.” SPE is a third-party certification that focuses on highlighting healthy and sustainable meal choices. 

DiStefano says a large inspiration for the menu was the Culinary Institute of America’s Principles of a Healthy Menu, which includes a focus on fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins, reducing sodium and offering options in portion size. For example, in place of soda, the dining hall has an entire station of freshly squeezed juices, which are served in 4-ounce cups.

The smaller juice portions are a good example of how the department has been able to keep costs relatively flat compared to last year, despite the dining hall’s emphasis on fresher foods.

“We’ve long maintained our small plates, big flavor philosophy,” DiStefano says. “This location is the epitome of that. We can’t cook in large portions in this facility because everything is cooked to order. You don’t have any other way to produce these items in large quantities, and students are becoming more used to the customization of each crafted plate. We’re mass-producing on a micro scale. It’s very boutique in the style of cooking.”

DiStefano says this philosophy causes the staff to only make as much food as they need and then refresh as opposed to making large batches. That philosophy also contributes to reducing waste, which also saves the department money.