Amid the pandemic stress of the last 18 months, many people could use a place like the University of Richmond’s Well-Being Center.
Inside its walls, students can relax on earth-toned cushions while listening to piano, visit a rock-lined meditation garden, stop by massage and salt therapy rooms, hit the yoga studio, speak with a counselor—and pick up culinary and nutrition skills that could last well beyond their college years.
The center is also home to health food concept Organic Krush and a demonstration kitchen—and as the dining team sees it, the latter fits right in.
“Dining plays a role in educating the student, especially here where conceptually the campus focuses on their total well-being: physical, mental, emotional, nutritional,” says Terry Baker, executive dining director at the Virginia school. “We naturally partner with that because it’s our passion not just to feed [students] well for their studies and their time here, but to give them skills and healthy habits for life.”
That sense of total well-being has been challenged during the pandemic. But foodservice staff have remained committed to their facet, including upgrading the food at longtime stations, implementing sustainability-minded changes such as scrapping some single-use plastics and launching the Spider Demo Kitchen in January 2021.
Making healthy choices accessible
“Obviously with COVID, it was challenging to get programming up and running,” says Executive Chef Tyler Betzhold. “But the demo kitchen was important, because we’re trying to create an environment around the holistic idea—that it’s not just about going to the gym, meditating, eating right. It’s about all of those things together.”
To that end, Culinary Dietitian Madeline Nathe leads demonstrations of simple yet “fancied-up” recipes such as No Bake Granola Bars, Tahini Overnight Oats and Chai Spice Peach Sorbet, in addition to skills classes, educational sessions on topics like healthy snacking and more.
“The whole point is showing students they don’t have to be intimidated,” Betzhold says. “Most ingredients can be found at a convenience store or grocery, and a bunch of recipes can be done in the dorm with Tupperware or whatever you have on hand. And once we get through that barrier, that’s where we start to impart these skills and show how they can start taking care of themselves in this important way right now.”
Most students don’t come in expecting to obtain skills that “transfer forever after they graduate,” Baker adds. “They might come to us wanting to learn one particular recipe or learn a little bit more about nutrition, but then they stick around to learn about making a better breakfast, alternative proteins, knife skills, vegetarian living, and more importantly, how this fits into their overall wellness.”
Bringing it full circle
While the holistic, whole-student approach is exemplified in the Well-Being Center, it’s also found all over campus.
Foodservice staff are closely tied to the University of Richmond's sizable international population, for example, holding annual themed dinners that highlight a specific country’s cuisine, learning about students’ cultures and replicating home favorites on campus.
With more than 60 countries represented among the school’s 4,000 students, that synergy leads to some special connections. “I love working in an environment where we can say ‘Hey, are we close on this?’” Betzhold says.
He warmly recalls his experience making qabuli pulao, a traditional Afghan dish with goat and rice: “We worked with a student who tasted it and told us about how, when someone made a goat at home in Afghanistan, they’d stuff it with rice and dates and cook it for two days and invite all the nearby families over,” Betzhold says. “She said the dish made her think of home, and her sharing with us made it all mean so much more. It became about her life and her memories.”
It all goes back to the university’s mission of caring for students in every capacity and helping them build habits for true wellness.
“We are feeding the whole student in all that we do,” Baker says. “Nutrition influences their physical and emotional health, and great meals make great memories. It’s a real partnership, an ongoing conversation, a foundation that we hope will support their well-being for their whole lives.”Nominate an FSO of the Month