At Princeton University, every morsel on the plate is the result of careful curation and finely tuned decision-making—not just in how the meal is prepared, but also in the procurement of its every ingredient, its financial impact on the community and its effect on the environment.
It’s a fittingly cerebral approach to food at this Ivy League institution, where Campus Dining staffers are guided by a remarkable living document: the Campus Vision for the Future of Dining, which details Princeton’s guiding principles as they relate to foodservice and beyond. This evolving document was borne of discussions that began in 2015 to answer larger questions about how food fits into the university’s wider goals.
Read on to learn how they addressed those questions.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Finding common ground
“We started asking ourselves: In a liberal arts institution—to be in the science of humanity—what is the role of food in higher education?” says Smitha Haneef, assistant vice president of University Services and head of Campus Dining. “Once we started the discussion, it became pretty clear that food is quintessential to Princeton, period. But what that meant was 2,000 different answers.”
Haneef and a group met several times to look at the question of food’s place at Princeton through a wide swath of “lenses”: diversity of food and of people, student athletes’ needs, faculty members conducting world-class research on food and climate change, the purchasing power of the school to support local farms and more.
The original intent of the document was internal, Haneef says: “Campus Dining is one of the largest administrative teams at Princeton—and to run a diverse, large group, I found there was a need to curate, to set a common language.” But the effort soon attracted wider attention on campus. “The feedback was: It’s no longer about Campus Dining or your team. It’s a part of Princeton.”
Ultimately, the group centered the Campus Vision around four key tenets: health and well-being; sustainability and food systems; diversity; and community engagement.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Narrowing the focus
The Campus Vision’s iteration for the 2018-19 school year is a 48-page booklet, and it details not only overall philosophies but also various initiatives for each category.
Those include programs such as the Tiger Chef Challenge, in which teams of four students and a chef-mentor compete in a “Chopped”-style contest to make the best plant-forward dish using a secret ingredient (in 2018, it was mushrooms provided by the local Mushroom Council), as well as teaching kitchens where staff, students and community members learn from experts.
But perhaps the most major theme of the Campus Vision and of Campus Dining overall is procurement. It crosses all four of the Vision’s core tenets, and it cuts to the heart of what ends up on every Princeton plate.
“We believe that for us to stay relevant and proactive, we must be closest to our suppliers and curators and craftsmen of ingredients in all categories,” Haneef says. “We go out to the farms. We meet the farmers. We know the names of some of the cows that produce our milk. And we think that is incredibly important.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
The approach to procurement is both “open-minded” and holistic, says Mike Brown, Princeton Campus Dining’s assistant manager in purchasing: “We always look for transparency, diversity, and sustainability at the outset. We don’t just hear about a company that can supply us good chickens at a good price—we actually go out to their farm or their plant and see how they operate on a day-to-day basis.”
It’s a time-consuming method, but Brown says it’s worth every minute of due diligence to ensure as many ingredients as possible are natural, healthy, sustainable and local. For other operators looking to overhaul their procurement methods, Brown recommends “taking it one category or ingredient at a time.” Princeton started with cage-free eggs when a graduate student complained about the lack of them years ago, and it kept expanding from there.
Sometimes, a switch takes ingenuity, he adds. For example, after students asked for jelly without high-fructose corn syrup, Campus Dining staffers identified a local vendor who could supply the goods. “On the surface, we should have been able to make that switch easily, but the vendor told us they didn’t have delivery trucks and weren’t sure how they could get us the jellies,” Brown says. “The conversation could have ended there. But we were able to partner with a produce vendor to pick up the jellies on their way. We have some unique situations here because we try to find a way to make things happen.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Seeing the bigger picture
Ingredient by ingredient, meal by meal, Princeton wants to be part of the “food systems and climate change dialogs in the U.S. that are creating a rapid shift,” Haneef says.
The challenges are large, but Haneef is confident that even small operations can do their part. Quick wins, such as switching to a local vendor for one ingredient or running a cooking workshop for community members, can be an easy way to start—and to plant the seed for more. “It’s so easy for someone to say, ‘It’s not for me to act, it’s for the other,’” Haneef says. “But we all have a place in this effort. If you have a kitchen and a foodservice operation, you must acknowledge that you have a very powerful platform to engage your community.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Meet the FSD: Smitha Haneef
Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
We want to be able to understand the most current science and scientific evidence around food systems as it relates to climate change. And we want to be able to demonstrate feasible, low-cost or no-cost solutions on our campus—while making it as open source as we can.
The second part: Let us all up-skill ourselves so that we might become able to share with confidence how to nourish ourselves to be our healthy best to serve our communities.
Q: What makes your operation excel?
My team. They’re my pride and joy. They’re the reason we as an institution are able to support our students, faculty and staff in the best manner that we can—from the food we procure, to the way we prepare it, to the way we care. I’m ever so grateful for them.Nominate an FSO of the Month