4 stealable ideas to power up college dining

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“The Power of Food” was the theme for the 23rd annual Chef Culinary Conference hosted June 4-9 by the University of Massachusetts, and when the 250-plus college chefs and foodservice directors who attended left the Amherst, Mass., campus, they came away with some powerful ideas to put into action. Here are four takeaways gleaned from the demos, kitchen workshops and presentations held during the five-day event.

1. Turn to teaching

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Students are empowered by learning how to cook, said June Jo Lee, the food ethnographer for Google Food and UMass Dining. Universities including Stanford are leading the way by opening teaching kitchens within their dining halls. Campus chefs hold regular culinary classes, helping students understand the complexity of the supply chain along with practical techniques and recipes.

2. Meet the 365 challenge

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The typical foodservice kitchen stocks a total of only 145 different plants and animals, said presenter Arlin Wasserman, founder of sustainability consultancy Changing Tastes. He urged attendees to “take the 365 challenge” by featuring a new food every day of the year, relying on what he called student-based sourcing. “Ask every student to identify an ingredient from home they haven’t seen in the dining hall,” said Wasserman. “Find the ingredient and cook it into a menu item.”

3. Take an interdisciplinary approach

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Knit the academic experience into foodservice, advised Dawn Aubrey, director of dining services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The agriculture school on her campus eases that integration; one department got a grant for students to grow winter wheat for dining services to make into pizza dough, while a food pilot lab fabricates clean-label products that campus chefs serve. “When students are involved [in production], they get a positive message out to other students about our dining program,” said Aubrey.

4. Be inventive when seeking student feedback

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Students are inundated with surveys, noted several of the foodservice directors at the “Turn your Department into the Shining Star on Campus” symposium. As an alternative, one participant polls student employees of dining services to get feedback on the program, while another holds “office hours” in the dining hall to invite comments.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., chefs come out into the dining hall in street clothes and sit with students to get immediate feedback on a particular menu item, said Naomi Carton, the school's associate dean of residential life and dining. Another tactic—tap the most vocal complainers and empower them to champion the dining program; they often turn out to be the best ambassadors, agreed several attendees.


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