It’s time for lunch at Hampshire Dining Commons, known affectionately by students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst by its nickname “Hamp.” There may be essays to stress over, majors to choose and friends to catch up with later but for now, the most difficult decision for students is choosing whether to fill their stomachs with hand-rolled sushi or vegetarian tacos with fresh guacamole before their next class.
The secret? Make it crave-able.
In 2013, the Dining team at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst made some gigantic changes in regards to their dining services. These included a 15.5 million dollar renovation of Hampshire Dining Commons and a pledge to join the Real Food Challenge, which means they promise to source 20% “real” food by 2020 by shifting spending from industrial sources to local, sustainable food sources.
It turns out, kids do care. Since 1999, overall participation the university’s meal plan has more than doubled from 8,300 participants to more than 19,200.
UMass believes they have the best customers in the world.
We reached out to UMass to find out what separates them from the rest and in a high energy conversation filled with pride and passion, Christopher Howland listed a buffet of student perks that are part of student living:
This isn't just about cafeteria lines. For students, this is part food, part green science, part economy and even menu engineering. Christopher shared, "Yes, schools are here to educate, but you can educate through food. For example, local farmer's come onto campus and share knowledge with students in the cafeterias."
It is an adventure. Students can visit the school's apple orchard, do mushroom walks, volunteer in the permaculture program or work as a student ambassadors (a secret food shoppers.)
All this at a university revered for business, nursing and engineering majors. The idea is once students graduate, this will be part of who they are and start to ask the good questions going forward.
What can we learn from this?
There are no excuses. If a college serving 6 million meals a year - and is one of the most affordable in the region to attend - is able is evolving to feed their students the healthiest, most sustainable meals possible, then anyone can.
Keep asking. Students like pizza. Lots of pizza. UMass said, "Hey, can this pizza crust be organic?" So they asked their local supplier. The local supplier rose to the challenge. The lesson? Just keep asking. Keep raising the bar.
On their website, localumass.com, the dining team lists the issues they are averting by offering healthy, organic and sustainable options to their students. The main issues include:
- The agricultural sector provides the second highest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States so UMass focuses on sourcing locally and supporting sustainable farms and fisheries helps to reduce GHG emissions.
- Experts expect obesity to increase by 33% in the next 20 years. With the rise of obesity comes greater prevalence of diseases and increased financial strain on the health care system. UMass is combating obesity by reducing their offerings of red meat, processed foods, corn syrup and high sodium foods at Hampshire Dining Commons, and increasing campus-wide consumption of fruits, vegetables, and healthy beverages.
- The dining team at UMass offers healthy and sustainable foods grown in healthy soil. Monoculture - the continuous growing of one kind of food in the same place - increases production but depletes the soil in the process, creating nutritionally deficient food. UMass supports farms who practice good-soil techniques by buying their products.
In general, buying local keeps money in the local community, helps to preserve family farms, reduces transportation costs (both monetarily and environmentally) and ensures that fresh and healthy food can remain available and affordable.
The changes implemented by the dining team have paid off: the Princeton Review recognized them for serving the “Best Campus Food” in the country. UMass Amherst Dining serves 45,000 meals a day, which adds up to 6 million a year1, more than half of which is sourced from New England farms, cooperatives and vendors.
If a dining service of this scale can do it, what’s the excuse for smaller institutions or those of the same size?
Why do other schools continue serving their students sub-par food, at best?
Some may argue that healthy, organic and sustainable eating is not a priority for college students who notoriously eat poorly, thriving on $5 large pizza deals and Coca-Cola caffeine rushes to help them finish papers last minute. Mostly, though, the decision to choose industrially-produced, GMO-filled meal offerings over “real food” is monetarily driven. Those who oppose UMass Dining’s “real food” model claim that a school’s job is to educate students, not to feed them. They claim that food should not be a priority.
I can speak about third-party food service companies from experience. My school, Bentley University, serves food from Sodexo, a French multinational company and one of the largest providers of campus food in the country. My decision to move to an apartment a mile from campus my sophomore year was primarily driven by a desire to grocery shop and eat my own food – a decision that saved me lots of money. An unlimited meal plan at Bentley costs $2,975 per semester. In contrast, I can shop for organic, healthy and sustainable food myself for less than $1,000 per semester.
But there’s hope for other campuses, including mine.
On their website, UMass dining even offers a How-to Guide for other food service operators, such as school campuses, that provides direction for anyone interested in taking a more sustainable, healthy, and locally-conscious approach to food service.
The transition to sustainable, healthy and organic food offerings can be strenuous and costly, but it will be worth it. The payoff is great – well-fed, well-nourished students will have more energy to perform better in classes and in their studies. To those who say that nourishing students should not be a school’s priority, I say this: food is fuel and what we put in our bodies determines how they will perform.