Students get a chance to prepare healthy foods in a
student chef competition.Dining services at the University of New Hampshire has taken a multi-department approach to improving the health of its customers.
Foodservice operators at many colleges and universities have developed health and wellness programs, but few have taken their efforts to the extent that dining services at the University of New Hampshire has done.
Not only has the department, led by Director Jon Plodzik, implemented nutrition education components and dealt with the issues of allergens and gluten intolerance, it also has partnered with the Healthy UNH Initiative to engage people from all over campus to live a healthier lifestyle. That extra push is what led judges to honor the university with the Goldies Award in the category Health & Wellness.
“Three years ago, [University] President Huddleston said he thought we could be doing better in the area of health—not just wellness but overall health,” says Jill Porter, one of the principals of Healthy UNH. “We’ve taken a broad approach from the UNH side, bringing folks together from all around campus. But dining has been able to connect the dots for us across multiple layers. Where at other campuses you might see the dining program working in isolation, here they really have tried to engage, as much as possible, other parts of the university.
“You see it with the local foods effort, [the department’s] use of our dietetic interns as show
cased in the video [submission] and in the [campus] walks that dining has so graciously supported.”
The keystone of the UNH healthy dining initiative has been dining services’ use of the Guiding Stars program. Guiding Stars is an independent service that measures the health quotient of foods and labels them accordingly with stars. The more stars—the maximum is three—the healthier the item.
“When we first implemented Guiding Stars the comments we got were, ‘Boy, that sounds like it’s going to be a lot of work,’” admits Plodzik. “But our people really have this passion to be better and to do more and more. So we worked through the challenges and have made the program work for our customers.”
In addition to the use of the Guiding Stars, dining services lists all nutritional information, not only at the point of selection but also on the department’s website, at nutrition kiosks in the dining halls and even as an app for smartphones.
“We want to actively engage our customers to think about food and how it can help them,” says Rochelle D’Italien, R.D., the department’s staff dietitian. “It’s about educating them with My Plate, getting them to look at all the food groups and to introduce them to foods they might not have tried before.”
UNH was also one of the first universities to actively address wellness issues outside of what students shouldn’t eat, by helping students avoid foods they can’t eat. UNH’s gluten-free stations, for instance, have been a model for other campuses. As this excerpt from UNH’s Goldies entry form states:
“Students and guests delight in the flexibility and choices we offer for dietary concerns like gluten intolerance, food allergies, lifestyle preferences and religious beliefs. Our gluten-free program is like no other, offering the ability to select gluten-free options online, via our ‘gluten phone,’ in our gluten-free stations located in each dining hall and through personal consultation with our culinary director and dietitian.
One thing UNH’s healthy initiative has not done is limit or place an emphasis on prohibition.
“Our program has never been about removing choices,” says Plodzik, who notes that students can still get burgers and chicken nuggets if they want. “It’s been about educating customers about making better choices. We want students to make the choices themselves. We want them to walk up to the soda machine and see the flavored water that we’ve prepared for them right next to those machines, and say, ‘You know, I bet that water would be healthier for me,’ and make that choice. For us, it’s all about changing behavioral patterns.”
Success, Plodzik adds, would be the day when the department can look at production sheets
and say, “We went through 25 pounds of chicken nuggets today, but we went through 250 pounds of salmon.”
Culinary Services Director Ralph Coughenour has been working diligently with his team of chefs to reduce the sodium, sugar and trans fats in virtually everything the department prepares.
“We are working to do as much scratch cooking as possible,” says Coughenour. “Easy is never better and fresh is always best. In addition to our chicken nuggets, for example, we serve a baked chicken tenderloin that has gone over very well. When we work with the Guiding Stars chefs we are always looking for ways to up the nutritional quality of our meals.”
Plodzik believes that “there is a marked difference between ourselves and what a lot of other places do.” But, he adds, that’s not enough. “We have a vision for UNH to be the healthiest campus community in the country by 2020.”