Foodservice Operation of the Month

Texas Christian University: Doubling down on student wellness

At TCU, food serves as a way to provide holistic wellness to students and offer them comfort while they're away from home.
TCU cooking class
TCU students can participate in a number of wellness events as part of the school's Healthy Frogs program. | Photos courtesy of Texas Christian University

COVID rocked the world in countless, permanent ways. Its effect on both the physical and the mental prompted existential questions about whole-person health. Exactly what does it mean to be “well”?

It’s a heavy question, particularly for C&U food service operators whose diners are also residents. But Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University (TCU) is dedicated to meeting that challenge: providing holistic wellness to students through a revamped health program, intentional menu planning, special events and more.

“We constantly remind ourselves that this is our students’ home away from home, and that comes with responsibility,” says Food Service Director Kyle Hollingsworth. “They’re dealing with a lot on a day-to-day basis, whether it be stressors in their social lives, exams, things at home, whatever they're going through. We want to make it as much like home as possible, and to be a place that makes them feel comfortable.”

A centerpiece of that effort is TCU’s Healthy Frogs program, launched in 2020 by campus dietitian Maddie Jacobs in response to student surveys. Newly revamped this year, Healthy Frogs is a holistic wellness initiative centered on education: how to build a healthy plate, nutrition for student-athletes, how food choices can impact mental health and more.

The Healthy Frogs program was previously student-run, but this school year it’s become more comprehensive and led by Jacobs, who frequently partners with other TCU offices like the Mental Health Center and Recreation Center.

“It’s not just about saying, ‘Eat this healthy item’; it’s about eating a balanced diet with all of your major nutrients, and that can be a more involved thing,” Hollingsworth says. “These days, there’s more information and more focus on different aspects of wellness, but that can also lead to more confusion.”

Jacobs and her team work hard to decomplicate and to connect with students, he adds. They hold one-on-one nutritional consultations with students by request. The Healthy Frog social media accounts share recipes, meal prep plans, mini educational primers like “Vitamin D 101,” and myth-busting about food marketing terms.

Special events dot the schedule, too. To kick off the school year, the Healthy Frogs program held an on-campus Wellness Fair showcasing about a dozen on-campus departments and community organizations focused on this space. The concept was to create a one-stop shop for both new and returning TCU students, spreading awareness of all the wellness resources available to help them.

Throughout the year, the tentpole events continue. Late-night breakfast during finals week gives busy students dedicated time to come together with friends and replenish their bodies. A Dry January-inspired event earlier this year offered immune-boosting mocktails like a Blueberry-Infused Nojito and a Cranberry Moscow Mock-Mule with more than 100 student attendees bringing home cards that linked to a digital mocktail recipe book with notes from Jacobs and information about immune-boosting foods.

“Events really give us the opportunity to think outside the box, and get excited about what makes students excited,” Hollingsworth says. “What can we do that makes that day a little more special for them? It’s human nature to enjoy having fun and doing things out of the ordinary.”

TCU Mocktail event
TCU hosted a mocktail event where they served immune-boosting mocktails like a blueberry-infused nojito.

Wellness through food

The twin drivers of excitement and wellness are also key for menu planning, says Director of Culinary Operations Michael Smith.

Smith is a chef with an artist’s heart, who speaks in florid analogies when discussing his passion for student nutrition.

“It’s the amalgamation of art and music into culinary expression,” Smith says of his job. “When you combine flavors, you’re actually saying: Are these notes working together? Are these chords creating dissonance or resonance?”

Smith encourages his team to lean into an artist’s creativity: Serve not just turkey, but a strawberry mojito brined smoked turkey. Offer something more than a simple grilled cheese they can get anywhere—perhaps a succulent lobster mac-and-cheese version? Offer not a premade curry bowl, but a customizable bar with multiple grilled lean proteins, a variety of sauces and piles of vegetables that students can select as desired.

Crucially, however, this creativity must be aimed at delivering for students first.

“Sometimes a good chef is tempted to throw in all these fancy bits and show off how great they are creatively,” Smith says. “But the real question is: How does it move them? Do the students love it? It’s like great art: It’s not judged by how well the technique is executed, but by how much you move the listener.”

That level of care is key to helping improve student wellness, in Smith’s estimation. It’s not just about the food but the respect and caring for each student as a person—a person worthy of being delighted, surprised, and nourished.

“What we try to say with our menus is: you are not just some student to us,” Smith says. “We want our diners to say to themselves, ‘I am so glad I chose to come to school here. They honor me and they celebrate me.’ That’s how we initiate our menu development: How can we help them to walk away feeling good, in all senses of the word?”


Get to know Texas Christian University’s Kyle Hollingsworth

See what’s in store for Hollingsworth’s operation, which was named FSD’s May Foodservice Operation of the Month.

Q:  What is it that makes your operation excel?

I hope this isn’t too cliché, but it’s the passion. Throughout much of my career as I was coming up, I was told, “Work is work; it isn’t personal.” But in this field, I do believe work is personal. If you have the right people and they care about what they’re doing, it’s very personal.

We want to do well. We want to succeed. And it’s not for ourselves, but about our customers. Of course, it’s nice to get a congratulations and a pat on the back, but we are here for our students. So, for me, it's very personal. I believe one of the reasons we stand out is because we have surrounded ourselves with a team in which everyone has that personal passion.

Kuyle Hollingsworth
Kyle Hollingsworth

Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?

Obviously, we have our company goals and our financial goals. But that's not necessarily what I focus on; those things will all come together if we’re doing the right things and surrounding ourselves with the right people. So that’s where I put my energy. We want to continue building our team with the right people: passionate individuals who care about what we're doing here. That’s what will help us grow our program, including new dining spots, partnerships with student organizations and unique events. It all comes back to serving our students and giving them what they want.

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