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What Smitha Haneef hopes to bring to Harvard’s dining program

This school year and beyond, the department’s new managing director seeks to put inclusivity and flexibility at the fore.
Smitha Haneef
Photo courtesy of HUDS/photo credit: Rose Lincoln

In early April, Smitha Haneef took the reins as managing director of dining at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

This food industry veteran previously headed up the dining program at Princeton University and has had a robust career to date, including a stint with Aramark, running her own catering program and working in five-star hotels in Hyderabad, India. Although she’s at the beginning of her time at Harvard, Haneef has ambitious plans for the dining program. 

She talked to FoodService Director about some of those goals and how she plans to tackle them.

Driving inclusion

Diversity can bring positive changes to the dining program, Haneef says, and she wants every single student to feel welcomed, understood and catered to. 

Her dedication to diversity got renewed emphasis after Harvard's director of admissions informed her that the student body for the 2021-2022 school year would be the most diverse in Harvard’s history, with students from 94 countries and women making up more than half of the group.

Haneef hopes to learn from these students and to provide food that meets their needs and wants, both culturally and religiously. “The incoming class urges us to reflect and urges us to innovate to build an inclusive program,” she says.

During her time at Princeton, she ran heritage month programs, celebrating cultures of different groups on campus. She believes she can build something unique to Harvard’s campus that would serve a similar purpose.

Through welcoming these students and receiving their input, Haneef aims to bring a renewed sense of community to Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), something that will be particularly important when the full student body comes to campus this fall for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Closing any gaps

Incoming students will get a primer on the foodservice program before they arrive through an initiative called Navigating HUDS, which provides videos on the campus dining options.

“Instead of waiting until moving-in day, we're trying to see how can we ramp up some of our digital and communication strategies so we can engage with students in the summer,” she says.

So far, she says, this communication has primarily been through the undergraduate student council, but that may change. “As we think about the fall, we’re looking at pathways for our communications, particularly digital, because that's where the students are,” she says, “so if we are to meet the students, where are they and which platforms are best suited for us? 

That adaptable type of approach extends to service styles on Harvard’s growing campus, which spans both sides of the Charles River. Haneef is considering whether to add pickup locations to make it easier for students to get food, but she also looks forward to gathering students together in the dining halls for a more communal experience. 

Harvard dining hall

Photo courtesy of HUDS/photo credit: Kristin Teig

“They’ll be looking for us to meet their needs, so we’ll need to have flexibility in our programs to meet students where they are, as they're going through the day,” she says. 

Education at the forefront

Collaborating with the different departments on campus, such as the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and helping to communicate their research on food and nutrition to students and dining staff is also part of the plan.

Another example she points to is the science and cooking course offered through the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science, which uses food to demonstrate basic principles of chemistry, physics and engineering. 

Increasing numbers of students are interested in global food systems as well, starting with farms and agricultural structures, and Haneef says she would love to bring in guest speakers on those topics, recording the sessions so that “anyone in the world can take advantage of Harvard being at the intersection of food systems, health and climate.” 

Environmental focus

A top priority for Haneef is to remain true to HUDS’ values, offering plant-forward menus and fresh ingredients that are sourced locally whenever possible and prepared with simple techniques that support the health of people and the planet. 

She’ll also retain the dining program’s commitment to sustainable seafood. Since 2015, HUDS has partnered with seafood market Red's Best to support local fishers and the nearby waters. The two entities created a "catch of the week" program in which HUDS commits to buying a significant volume of fish—approximately 1,800 pounds per week—which includes using the entire catch and introducing new fish varieties.

Reusable bags

Photo courtesy of HUDS

And to reduce packaging waste, Harvard is this summer piloting a reusable thermal bag and bottle program, providing each student with both of these items. The bottles are paired with information about refill stations in the dorms to nudge students away from disposable water bottles.

Options for everyone 

With such a diverse student base, it’s going to be a challenge to meet customers’ dietary needs, but Haneef is confident she can do it. She intends for any of the meals served at Harvard—whether they be kosher, halal, gluten-free—to appeal to students with many different food preferences, including those with none at all.

As part of this, she’ll look to learn from the students about their food cultures. “We’ve spoken to students to get input on menu changes and suggestions,” she says. “They’re dialing in, and they’re interested.”

The other part is the HUDS team itself, she says: “We ought to be investing in our own knowledge of culture, food and traditions of the world.”

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