College food has been a long-standing joke in America for decades. Cereal and mystery meat as low in quality as the alcohol the students drink have been continuous staples in dining halls across the country. In recent years, however, students have become increasingly more picky and health conscious, a trend that UMass Dining has responded to in a big way.
“There’s been a strong trend towards healthier eating and healthier lifestyles,” explained Joseph Flueckiger, the manager of Hampshire Dining Commons. In a survey conducted each year by UMass Dining, 80% of students asked for healthier meal options. Flueckiger says this data makes the decision to make the food better an easy business decision.
“If 80 percent of your customers are asking for healthier food, you give them healthier food.”
The transition to healthy eating in the dining commons is best illustrated in the newly renovated Hampshire Dining Commons, where they sacrifice low cost for quality. Their biggest move towards healthy eating was the controversial decision to remove all sodas from the dining common. Instead of sodas, which can be filled with unhealthy chemicals and provide no nutritional value, they serve fresh-squeezed juices at all times, along with infused waters and unsweetened iced teas. While this seems like a no-brainer health-wise, it is a major cost to switch. A typical fountain soda costs about four to eight cents per serving, while a fresh-squeezed glass of juice can cost upwards of 40 cents.
Ken Toong, Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises, explained that people were doubtful of the possibility of eliminating soda from Hampshire. They said, “you’ll never make it without soda,” he explained, “and we did it, with no problem.”
UMass Dining also attempts to purchase the highest quality product possible. Toong says they push suppliers to meet their higher quality demands, threatening to switch to a different company if their needs are not met. For example, after determining that the Hormel Premium Turkey they were using in sandwiches was still too high in sodium, despite being the highest quality the company offered, they switched to a brand called Old Neighborhood, which has 50 percent less sodium, but is also 50 cents more expensive per pound.
“We know [the ingredients] are more expensive, but we are able to save with cutting down on waste,” Toong explains.
To cut down on waste, the dining staff prepares less food far in advance of the lunch and dinner rushes. They have also reduced portion sizes, allowing for students to take more of what they like, but not waste a lot if they choose not to eat it. At UMass students waste about three to five ounces of food each meal, a figure Toong is proud of.
Another way UMass is devoting themselves to quality is through buying locally grown food. In 2012, over 25% of their produce was locally grown, Diane Sutherland, the head dietician at UMass Dining, demonstrated on a graph which illustrated the increasing percentage of local produce each year. She explained that while foods are in season, they try to buy as much locally as possible.
This year UMass Dining received a $500,000 grant to continue to increase the amount of locally grown food they purchase.
According to Sutherland, UMass Dining also refuses to add and chemicals or MSG into any of the foods they prepare, and has removed all trans fat oil from the cooking process.
Toong says his main goal when he took over at UMass was to make UMass Dining the best in the country. They are almost there, ranking in the top three of the Princeton Review for the past two years.
Of his next goal, Toong declares, “we want to be one of the healthiest campuses in the country,” a goal they are also well on their way toward.