At the University of North Texas (UNT), students are many-splendored things. And the university’s dining services is focused on every facet.
They understand students may want a healthy vegan grain bowl for dinner, and then to tuck into some french fries after a night out. And student athletes receive not only training on the practice field during their team’s season, but also guidance from sports nutritionists in the dining halls year-round.
At UNT, foodservice is about serving the whole student. Read on to see how they accomplish this goal.Nominate an FSO of the Month
‘Something for everyone’
“In our high-volume dining halls, we want to offer items that are scalable,” says Peter Balabuch, UNT's director of resident dining. “But then you can get individualized: You can also give them a flash service of carved steamship of beef. Or they can go grab homemade seitan at the vegan cafe, or the blackened catfish dinner at our Creole location. Our goal is that there really is something for everyone.”
That multifaceted approach is clear in the types of cuisine offered across UNT’s five all-you-care-to-eat dining halls. Bruce and Kerr dining halls are what Balabuch calls “all-purpose.” There, classic housemade dishes such as cheeseburgers, fried chicken and from-scratch pizza and pasta are served alongside specials such as Mediterranean shawarma. These locations are the high-volume players, routinely serving more than 2,500 students at lunch.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Ahead of the game
The other three halls are UNT’s specialized locations. Perhaps most unique is Mean Greens Cafe, a 100% vegan facility that was years ahead of the trend when it opened in 2011.
“Back then, students on campus were talking about more vegan options, and my supervisor said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s go all the way,’” Balabuch says. “We decided, we’re not copying and pasting the vegan dishes from other halls. Let’s really embrace the idea of whole foods and go all the way with one location 100% vegan. So we took a dining hall offline in May and brought it back on that September.”
Mean Greens is outfitted with bold colors, booth seating and a hydroponic garden, and the menu focuses heavily on international foods. The most popular service is Wednesday’s Indian day, with freshly made pakora, tomato-mushroom curry and more.
Next there’s West Hall, “a very low-volume dining hall that serves Southern Creole food, and it’s lunch and dinner only,” Balabuch says. Going to West Hall is like visiting New Orleans, he says, with fried catfish Tuesdays, a Mardi Gras celebration with etouffee and jambalaya, and plenty of smoked meat.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Feeding the team
Rounding out the five UNT dining halls is Champs, a location dedicated to sports nutrition. There, the focus is on made-to-order grill items and plenty of protein and carbs to fuel student athletes: boiled eggs and bacon for breakfast, a specialty blended burger for lunch and rotisserie chicken for dinner.
Champs is the domain of Charles Ashford, the first sports nutritionist hired at UNT. Ashford, now on staff for two years, is responsible for 350 athletes across UNT’s 12 teams. And though his position falls under the budget and purview of dining services, he’s highly embedded in the Division I school’s athletics.
“I’ll go out to watch practices, talk to coaches and be part of the overall support staff,” Ashford says. “The players see you out there, and they respect and appreciate the support. It builds a trust that you can’t have if you’re just calling them into your office once in a while.”
Ashford’s days vary widely depending on which teams are in season, but here’s how he spent one recent day: out on the field from 7 to 8 a.m. with the football team for spring practice, to Champs for breakfast, out for another practice and back to Champs for lunch, where the softball team was returning from a game in Oklahoma just in time to fuel up for another game that evening.
“We’re not the food police, picking on every detail of someone’s plate,” Ashford says. “But if they have questions or need help in their selections, I’m on hand. It really is about being there.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
1 on 1 as well
Ashford also meets individually with student athletes looking to improve their habits—or their performance—and frequently holds “five-minute talks with teams about topics like macronutrients, hydration, fueling for recovery, etc. We want it to be information that’s relevant to where the team is in its season, in a way that’s easy to retain,” he says.
He also tracks the effects of these discussions on athletes’ performance. “My best advice is always to show the [powers that be] the return on investment,” Ashford says. “In my case, we share stats like injury rates, weights and body mass. When you can show something is working, it’s a lot easier to keep it going.”
He may spend more time on the field than in the cafeteria, but like all of UNT’s dining team, Ashford says his goal is to “build healthy habits for life. Unfortunately, you won’t catch everyone. But if you can gain their trust, and put in the time to show them you care, you can make a difference in their health and their lives.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Meet the FSD: Peter Balabuch
Director of Resident Dining, University of North Texas
Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
A: A lot of our goals are going to be centered around expanding what we’re already doing, to be honest, whether that’s with fresh local foods or deepening the experience at each individual foodservice location.
Q: What is it that makes your team great?
A: I think that overall we have—and I have—supervisors who make sure that we are taking risks with what we do. And they support us in every endeavor along the way. On this campus, as a self-operated organization, we’ve been so close with the students for such a long time that our managers have a vested interest in making things here work. If a student wants to see an infused water, the chef is probably going to try to have that ready for the next meal period. We’re not afraid to always be moving forward.Nominate an FSO of the Month