The Universal Meals program embodies inclusivity in dining at the University of Miami

The newly expanded program is a weekly plant-based menu offering that avoids the nine major allergens.
Chickpea stew and brown rice
Chickpea stew and brown rice is one of the recipes that came out of the Universal Meals program. | Photo courtesy of The University of Miami dining.

The University of Miami is embracing inclusivity in dining and that means expanding its Universal Meals program, a plant-based and allergen-free offering. The program centers around ensuring all diners at the university have an abundance of options, regardless of dietary restrictions. The demand for more inclusive menus like this has been a major change in the eyes of veteran chefs who serve college campuses.

“We're looking at society's change," said Campus Executive Chef Scot Emerson. "This is my 42nd year as a chef in the foodservice industry. I can remember, way back in the day, you might get a peanut allergy but now it's like one in 10 people in America have a food allergy. And then there's all kinds of dietary restrictions and cultural preferences that we need to meet. So, the Universal Meals program fits really nicely into that.”

The  program launched about three years ago. Since then, the team has increased the frequency that it’s offered in the resident dining halls. And now, many of the recipes from the program are available for catering customers as well.

Made possible by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the program provides a database of recipes for its partners to use. Emerson said there are currently about 125 recipes available for use. The team does alter the recipes slightly, just to adjust them for scale purposes, and the program is offered every Wednesday in the dining hall.

Some recipes that have come out of the program are different quinoa bowls, grains, tofu served in a variety of ways and marinated chickpeas. Emerson has found that Jamaican and Cuban flavors are especially popular with diners. One of the most popular recipes that came out of the program is a hearts of palm crab cake.

“It's nice. I mean, there's, there's a lot of fun things I think you can do,” said Emerson.

Emerson said he didn’t really have any challenges in executing the Universal Meals recipes. In addition, most of the cooks caught on to the recipes right away.

“For me, it's very easy. It's natural flavors and good oils, like extra virgin olive oil,” said Emerson. “They all acclimate to it pretty well. I mean, higher education is recipe-driven, right?”

And diners’ response to the recipes has been very positive, said Emerson.

“We've had great response to it. The kids love it. The adults love it. Because it just gives them the opportunity to have real confidence,” he said.

Inclusivity in dining at the University of Miami is not limited to the Universal Meals program. The university has a robust plant-based program including plant-based stations in its dining halls. In addition, Emerson has been working to increase the vegan options offered on campus.

When it comes to plant-based strategy, Emerson leans into vegetables as the center of the plate and away from meat analogue products. He’s especially fond of tofu, beans and lentils.  

There is also a plant-based student group on campus dubbed “Plant-based 'Canes,” which Michael Ross, resident district manager for Chartwells, foodservice provider at the university, oversees.

When marketing plant-forward fare, Ross said the team shies away from advertising it as 'vegan' or 'vegetarian,' further boosting the concept of inclusivity.

“I don't like advertising things as vegan and vegetarian," he said. "I really prefer to advertise them as really tasting good, so that we can get students to try these things, enjoy them and then surprise them afterward and say, 'Did you know that was healthy, what you just ate?'"

When addressing students with food allergies and other special dietary needs, it’s a very personalized process. Typically, the student and their parents will meet with the chefs and the directors. In addition, the team will walk them through the dining halls to make sure they’re confident in knowing where they can eat.

“So, we really laid the foundation to look at our menus, reengineer our menus to make sure that we're hitting all the high notes really, especially for a plant-based diet, but also for our allergens and dietary restrictions,” said Emerson.

Ross recently received an award in leadership and university nutrition from the Efficient Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, for his work on the Universal Meals program. 

Moving forward, the teams hopes to incorporate more educational components into the program. Emerson said they are working on incorporating cooking and grocery shopping classes into their programming in the future.

“We educate kids a lot, whether it's law or science or physics," he said. "But we don't do a lot of that how to just be healthy and enjoy your life. I think that's where probably the future is headed."



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