5 takeaways from a gathering of college and university operators

Sustainable, equitable foodservice was the topic at hand at the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative’s annual meeting.
Eagle Landing
Attendees had a chance to dine at UNT's newest dining hall, Eagle Landing. / Photo by Kelsey Nash

College and university operators from across the country gathered this week at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton to discuss sustainability and equity strategies and successes, and to get a behind-the-scenes look at some of UNT’s award-winning dining venues.

See what bubbled up at the annual meeting of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC), a group spearheaded by the Culinary Institute of America and Stanford University.

College students are limiting meat more readily than others.

A substantial amount of consumers are reducing their meat intake, but that ratio jumps when it comes to college students, says Marie Molde, a trend analyst with market researcher Datassential. Thirty-five percent of college students are “meat limiters,” an umbrella term that covers flexitarians, vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians, she says, compared to 29% of consumers overall.

The high proportion of college students who connect their diet to climate change (73%) could be playing a role in that difference.

C&U operators are moving the sustainability needle.

Ten types of protein account for 80-90% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, says Jackie Bertoldo, associate director of nutrition and food choice architecture at Stanford University. For the last few years, some MCURC member schools have participated in the group’s collective impact initiative, supplying data on their foodservice purchases for analysis.

The MCURC aims to reduce food-related emissions among the “protein portfolio” of its participants by 25% by 2030, Bertoldo says. Participating schools are ahead of schedule, she says, having reduced their emissions over the past three years to 7.58 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of food produced. They’ve done this largely by cutting meat on menus by 14%, with a 20% reduction of beef and lamb, specifically.

Though this progress is laudable, she says, the MCURC expects there may be some upticks in protein purchases as supply chain shortages normalize and that emissions reduction will not be a wholly linear decrease.

An inclusive dining program makes a strong recruitment tool.

While Kitchen West, a UNT dining hall where offerings are free of the top eight food allergens, may not always hit every objective from a business standpoint, the eatery has an outsized impact in terms of marketing, says Daniel Armitage, associate vice president for student affairs at UNT.

Mean GreensThe salad bar at Mean Greens, UNT's all-vegan dining hall that opened more than a decade ago. / Photo by Kelsey Nash

Potential students with food allergies and their families are thrilled when they learn that there is somewhere to eat on campus without the potential of cross-contamination, he says, and that may be a deciding factor in their choice to attend.

Making in-person communication easy is key.

“We have their money, all they have is our promise,” Peter Balabuch, executive director of dining services, says of UNT students. To ensure they are closing the loop on student feedback and addressing needs in real time, the UNT team makes sure a manager is highly visible in all dining halls during peak times, he says. The dining program has a responsibility to serve students well, he adds, noting that “we see our stakeholders at least three times a day.”

Broadening student palates can be a step toward culinary (and societal) change.

“To make a difference, we have to educate families,” says Marcus Glenn, school nutrition and agriculture science manager for Houston Independent School District (HISD), who gave a keynote presentation to attendees alongside HISD Nutrition Services Officer Betti Wiggins. It’s often kids who teach their parents about new foods, pointing out items that they’ve tried to their parents in the grocery store, Wiggins adds.

To that end, HISD employs two dieticians and a chef who visit schools on request to do taste tests and provide nutrition education to students.

In addition, Wiggins says, introducing kids to heirloom vegetables provides an opportunity to offer some basic lessons on diversity and accepting differences. They can learn, for example, that tomatoes can come in different colors and some carrots have two legs, but that they are all an important part of the ecosystem.

And it’s not only students who aren’t well versed in a breadth of ingredients or cuisines. In Houston, Wiggins is finding the latest generation of foodservice workers aren’t too familiar with cooking. They’ve grown up eating a lot of processed foods and convenience meals, she says, which can lead to steep learning curves when they’re hired to prepare fresh items for students.



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