DURHAM, N.H.—When the USDA and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) created their respective “healthy plate” icons to replace the traditional food pyramid recommendations, operators had to take note if they were going to offer customers information on a healthy diet. At the University of New Hampshire the dining department has taken the healthy plate icons a step further by creating an actual plate to educate and encourage students to follow healthy guidelines. The Wildcat Plate was introduced during the summer and now is being used across campus.
“We always used the Food Pyramid from the Harvard School of Public Health as our guide for our nutritional advice,” says Kimberly Persson, project director at the NH Institute for Health Policy & Practice, which worked with UNH Dining on the initiative. “When HSPH came out with its plate diagram we started thinking it would make a lot of sense if we could duplicate the plate for actual use rather than just as a handout.”
“We wanted something that [students] could really take with them, put their food on and really study,” David Hill, area manager, adds.
The department worked with a graphic designer to come up with a design for the plate. Hill says the design presented a bit of a challenge because the HSPH plate is a copyrighted image.
“Harvard is in the process of designing its own version of the plate, possibly to sell, which made them unwilling to let us print their actual plate,” Persson says. “So we worked with the USDA to get all their MyPlate information because we could use it for free as long as we credited them. We worked with our dietetic interns to come up with the proper language and nutritional information. Our plate is a hybrid between the USDA MyPlate and the HSPH plate.”
Once the design was settled, the department worked with a local company to get the plate manufactured. Jon Plodzik, director of dining, says a key requirement was finding a plate size that matched up with the dining hall’s standard plates.
“Operationally, I wanted this plate to be mixed in with the other plates, so when customers picked it up and they saw the design it became an educational surprise,” Plodzik says. “We had to find the right size that would nestle in with our existing plates and not cause the whole pile to tip over.”
The team is happy with the customer reaction. There is signage posted around the dining halls to support the program. Hill says the initial order was for only 500 plates, but the department is already looking into ordering more because the program has been so popular.
“[It was great because during] freshman orientation there was quite a bit of excitement with parents when they saw the plates,” Plodzik says. “The plates created some dialogue with the parents because it’s such a simple idea. They even wanted to buy the plates.”
Persson says she believes UNH is the only university to have created an actual plate from the widely known diagrams. Hill says the success of the program will depend on repeated exposure to the healthy message on the plates, and Plodzik agrees.
“I think the fact that [the messaging] is very subliminal makes it work well,” Plodzik says. “It’s a nice, passive way to educate the guests as they come in here. Plus, it’s an effective way to get conversations going around the table about healthy eating. It is getting customers to realize what exactly a portion is. We had a girl in here the other day who didn’t even know what a cup [measurement] was because she’s never cooked. [The plate] puts the information right in front of the students, so for at least a second they are thinking about [the message].”