KENNESAW, Ga.—When Culinary & Hospitality Services at 23,500-student Kennesaw State University opened its Commons Dining Hall in 2009, the department launched a wellness program to coincide with the hall’s debut. Since then, the Wise Choice wellness program has grown to include Wise Choice meals, wellness classes and chef demonstrations.
“We launched the program in collaboration with the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness, which was basically Brittany Slotten, the campus dietitian,” says Jenifer Duggan assistant director, Culinary & Hospitality Services. “We also worked with one of the university’s marketing classes, which created all the collateral and promotional material. The class also came up with the promotional schedule for how to launch the program. We also asked students to come up with the name of the program. They came up with Wise Choices, which played off the fact that our mascot is an owl.”
To establish the program, Slotten reviewed menus on a weekly basis and worked with the department’s executive chef to put together meals based around items that were heart healthy, low in sodium, low in fat, high in fiber or sugar free. Those menu items make up Wise Choice meals. The Wise Choices meals also focus on correct portion sizes, and signage on the meals offers what the department calls a “wise bite,” which presents a little piece of wisdom, whether it’s about the benefits of eating fiber or info on why you need to drink eight glasses of water a day. Each Wise Choice meal has the Wise Choice emblem next to it so students can be sure what items qualify as part of the program.
“We have nine separate stations in the Commons Dining Hall, including a wok station, home cooking, grill, pasta, salads, sandwiches and an international station,” Duggan says. “Our dietitian has composed a healthy meal out of items at one or two of the venues. It’s a great way for the students to go, ‘I don’t want to think about eating healthy today.’ Somebody else did it for them. Those meals are located throughout the [servery], and we try to make it as easy as possible for students to know how to build a healthy plate.
“We have items that are considered Wise Choices and then there are the composed Wise Choice meals, and we promote both,” Duggan adds. “Our dietitian comes up with all of the Wise Choices items and Wise Choice meals on a weekly basis. We basically let her determine what we should promote as Wise Choices. We also offer a vegan and vegetarian option at every station.”
As the program grew, the department began offering wellness classes and chef
demonstrations on healthy cooking.
“We go over everything from eating right to exercising to dealing with stress,” says Melissa McMahon, marketing manager for the department. “The classes are heavily promoted and usually very well attended. One of the really interesting things that we do is create a class on pre- and post-activity eating for student athletes. Our chef will show students how to sauté and put great spices together to make healthy dishes for the athletes.”
Duggan says the biggest challenges with the wellness initiatives are education and promotion.
“If you put macaroni and cheese next to sautéed squash in olive oil most people are going to choose the macaroni,” Duggan says. “I think we need to be making sure that we are doing a good job promoting the fact that we are focused on healthy choices and providing nutritionally balanced menus. I think the biggest benefit we had was getting the campus dietitian involved. We can put food on the table, but she helped us in terms of the nutritional analysis. I think that partnership is really beneficial.”
Farm to campus: Healthy meals are just one component of the department’s wellness strategy. The department started a farm-to-campus program in 2009 where they use produce grown on a 55-acre campus farm 30 miles from the university.
“There were two acres of tillable land,” Duggan says. “We planted tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash, zucchini, whole beans and cucumbers—all heirloom varieties. We planted an apple orchard. We installed an apiary. All the vegetables are used in recipes at the Commons. We had the first harvest last semester. We saved a ton of money on our produce spend. It was great to be able to let students know we had grown these vegetables 30 miles away.”
The department was able to expand the farm-to-campus program to two other properties because landowners wanted the department to use their land for planting. There is another three acres of land being farmed about 10 minutes from campus, and the department is currently working on a third property. Duggan says during the summer season the department receives between 20% and 25% of its produce from the farm.