NANCY LEVANDOWSKI has reveolutionized dining services at IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY by:
• CULTIVATING local purchases by launching the Farm to ISU program, which has increased local purchases from $56,000 a year to $900,000 a year
• IMPLEMENTING a comprehensive composting and trayless dining program
• GUIDING the program through the aftermath of an RFP by establishing a mission and investing in facilities
• SPEARHEADING the creation of an on-campus training center, which features a test kitchen and centralized student hiring
Nancy Levandowski, Iowa State UniversityNancy Levandowski doesn’t like anyone to get too comfortable. As director of ISU Dining at 28,000-student Iowa State University in Ames, Levandowski thrives on pushing her staff in order to make initiatives happen.
“She comes to you with what seems to be an off-the-wall idea, but she just has so much vision,” says Jamie Lenz, director of food stores and vending. “She tells you what she’d like to happen, but then she doesn’t micromanage it. She makes you try and experience new things, and it’s made me a better manager.”
Farm to ISU: Lenz says one of the initiatives that most impressed him was Levandowski’s efforts with the Farm to ISU program. Levandowski says her California upbringing helped propel her to make local purchasing a priority, even in Iowa. The program was created to increase purchases of local and organic products. Levandowski says the first step was to build relationships with farmers.
“[The program] was really an opportunity to bring something to the campus that wasn’t happening,” Levandowski says. “I got a list of the areas farmers and put together an email to them saying that the department was looking to start a local purchasing program. I invited them to come and meet with us.”
During the meeting Levandowski shared what the department had been buying and talked about goals. Levandowski was able to gain feedback from the farmers.
“[The big thing we learned was] the farmers wanted a commitment,” Levandowski says. “So we wrote a contract every year for half our cucumbers, half our cabbage and half our bell peppers. The farmers know that’s only half of what we need, so if they grow more we will buy it. That’s been really wonderful for us.”
Levandowski says the department does enforce some standards to keep pricing reasonable.
“If the farmer is coming in with a price that is 10% to 15% higher than we could get elsewhere, then we have a due diligence to our students to not spend that,” Levandowski says. “We have students on the Farm to ISU committee who gave a presentation to students on the meal plan that explained why [the committee students] think [spending more for local products] is important. The students on the meal plan approved of our food cost going up to cover this. That’s how we funded [Farm to ISU] originally. I got grants for the committee students to do the original legwork and then I got the students on the meal plan to agree that 1% more for local products was worth it. The program has allowed us to grow from $56,000 a year in local purchases to $900,000 per year in local purchases.”
Sustainability: Levandowski also has been a leader in terms of other sustainability initiatives, including recycling, offering reusable containers, composting and trayless dining. The composting efforts started after the city of Ames launched an initiative to improve water quality.
“The city was talking with the environmental, health and safety people on campus about starting to charge anywhere from $800 to $1,200 a month for water treatment,” Levandowski says. “So as we remodeled our facilities we started putting in the Waste Express system, which is similar to a pulper, that extracts water and keeps our water much clearer. We put the rest of that material in a compost bin.”
During the same time, Levandowski says, the department was talking to students about going trayless in the dining halls.
“I really thought it was the students’ decision,” Levandowski says. “When we opened Seasons [a dining hall that was being remodeled] the resident student council asked if we could try trayless there. Seasons is predominately a freshman dorm so those students didn’t know any different. We went trayless in that facility, and the next year we showed the students the results from Seasons and they decided to go trayless campuswide. As an extra incentive, I didn’t increase the food cost on the meal plans for the next year.”
Rebuilding after an RFP: One of the biggest challenges Levandowski faced during her tenure at ISU came right at the beginning. When she arrived in 2006 dining services had just been through an RFP process.
“Morale was very low,” Levandowski says. “The department was happy they survived and that they were chosen, but they felt bruised. So I knew a big part [of improving morale] was sharing a vision. I put together a mission statement and every year we update it. Creating that mission, vision and a marketing plan so that people knew where we were going was very important.”
Levandowski says a big part of rebuilding after the RFP came down to communication with the staff.
“Our staff were doing great things but people didn’t know about it,” Levandowski says. “I think it’s a Midwest thing. They don’t like to brag, and believe me, I’m a promoter at heart. So a lot of what I did was just to let everyone know what the staff was doing. I thought it was such a great match when I came here because I knew the process of what we needed to do for everyone to feel a sense of satisfaction.”
One of the most effective ways Levandowski rejuvenated the program after the RFP process was $20 million in renovations. Because people are so visual, Levandowski says, creating facilities that staff enjoyed working in was a big part of turning the program around.
“Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t easy, but when someone gives me $12 million I’m going to make sure to create an opportunity for our staff to have facilities that they can be proud of,” Levandowski says. “Of the $20 million renovations, $8 million was self funded. That goes to say that the campus was financially viable; we just needed to move things around and make things more accessible.”
A big thing with the renovations was figuring out what each location’s niche was going to be. Levandowski says the department wanted each location to have something that made it distinctive. The team asked themselves, “Is there a signature food item in the retail locations or a signature cooking platform in the residence halls?” For example, the Conversations dining facility is a hybrid location. Prior to the renovation, Conversations was an all-you-care-to-eat facility. Now the location is all-you-care-to-eat from 10:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., however from 7:00 a.m. to 10 a.m., the location is a coffee bar.
“It was one of the things I learned from my other [college foodservice jobs,” Levandowski says. “When you have a small school you can’t afford to build more buildings. So I said [Conversations] is right across the street from another dining hall so you don’t want to make it the same. Its niche is that it has this coffee bar.”
Training center: Levandowski says amidst all these renovations the department took over a dining hall that had been closed for about three years and brought it back to operational standards.
“As we came to the end of all our remodels I said I didn’t want to have this dining hall go back to being mothballs,” Levandowski says. “I told my team that I had this dream where we had a training center where we would centralize student hiring and we’d do chef meals there and the students can have house meals there while we train our staff. All of this part of the dream became the vision of what the training center would be. It opened in March and we had our first class in June.”
The centralized student hiring moved into the training center about seven months ago and Levandowski says it’s been phenomenal.
“When you hire 1,400 students, having students be the trainers with the new hires while they learn has been great because students speak each other’s language,” Levandowski says. “It’s freed up my managers to be on the floor. The student employees do the training and a full orientation for new student employees.”