News Date: 
Thursday, February 21, 2013

Source: Sunbelt Foodservice

by Heather Blount/staff writer

The University of Georgia (UGA) Food Services team hopes to make the “freshman 15” a thing of the past.

During a recent interview with Sunbelt Foodservice Magazine, several members of the team shed light on their efforts to give students the choices they need to get and stay healthy while matriculating on the UGA campus. The group included Jeanne Fry, executive director; Chef Bryan Varin, associate director of meal plan operations; Katherine Ingerson, registered dietitian; and Allison Harper, marketing coordinator for UGA Food Services.

The program offers foods for all walks of life, and while vegan or gluten-intolerant students are still a “very small” part of the population, Ingerson said, the staff ensures that both vegan and gluten-free options exist.

According to the UGA Fall Meal Plan Menu Book 2012, meatless and vegan entrées are served nearly every single day at one of UGA Food Services’ dining commons. In addition, menus offer “Bon-i-fied Good” items, which are the “healthiest items on the menu,” containing low saturated fats and low added sugars. These items also are sources of heart-healthy fats, moderate in calories and/or high in fiber, the meal plan says.

UGA Food Services has four dining halls: Bolton Dining Commons, Snelling Dining Commons, Oglethorpe Dining Commons and The Village Summit. While they all serve the same three-week-cycle menu, each area has its own specialty, Fry explained.

In Snelling Dining Commons, for example, students can pick up a slice of Giorgio’s Pizza, made from scratch in-house. At The Village Summit, students can go to Giorgio’s Pizza & Co. for a personal-sized customized pizza, while Oodles & More at Oglethorpe is the place for vegetarian delights. The Summit also has both a salad bar and fresh fruit smoothie bar where students can select from a pre-set menu of smoothies. At Oglethorpe, the Mongolian Grill lets students choose their own vegetables and meats for an Asian-inspired, grilled-to-order entrée. Fry explained that all the commons have a made-to-order omelet station as well.

UGA Food Services’ offerings range from Turkey-Apple Salad with Almonds (a “Toss of the Day”) to the Cowboy Burger, topped with BBQ sauce, bacon, red onion rings and Land O’ Lakes Monterey Jack with Chipotle cheese. For smoothies, students can choose fresh strawberries, grapefruit, raspberries, bananas and more to keep them going.

While UGA Food Services strives to give students the know-how and the opportunity to make the right decisions for their nutrition, the staff insists that they don’t force Brussels sprouts down anyone’s throat.

Fry noted, “We have all the products available so that students can choose to eat as healthfully as they could anywhere else…We try to have available a huge variety so that if they want to eat burgers and fries every day, well, guess what? They are a paying customer and that’s what they can do.”

Ingerson seconded this, but emphasized that “nutrition is definitely built into the framework of the menu and the cycle menus.”

Inside the dining hall, the staff takes great lengths to ensure that “health is apparent, that it’s visual, but we’re not forcing anyone to eat whole grains and steamed vegetables and never have a french fry,” explained Ingerson.

In addition to the four dining commons, the university campus also has a food court that features a Chick-fil-A, Barbaritos and Larry’s Giant Subs, plus some UGA-specific eateries. While students on the meal plan can visit these ­locations, their meal plans won’t pay for food court fare.

High-tech in the dining hall

The food has gotten an overhaul in the last few years, but the food isn’t the only thing that’s changing. Gaining entry into the dining commons has evolved as well. Now students can scan their palms using biometric hand scanners, which identify the unique shape and size of the student’s hand in order to charge the meal to his or her account. Students also can enter their nine-digit ID number, scan their UGA card or simply pay cash at any of the dining commons.With more than 8,000 students on the university’s voluntary meal plan, the foodservice staff have their work cut out for them in terms of satisfying the customer. Though they have a lot of stomachs to fill, Fry is confident in her program. “I tell the incoming freshman and their families: On a self-operated program such as ours at University of Georgia, my only stockholders are my customers, so all my efforts, all my money is spent pleasing my customer in some shape or form—it’s not going back to some company somewhere.”

Because UGA Food Services is self-operated, the staff have more ability to make changes based on what the students want.

“Within the last couple of years, the thing that we have been working on particularly has been improving our vegan and gluten-free options,” Ingerson said, adding that “there are about 20 students on the meal plan with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance of some sort.”

During Ingerson’s first year at UGA Food Services, 2005, there was no need for gluten-free options. Over the course of her work there, though, the need for gluten-free choices “has steadily increased and really has exploded within the last three to four years.”

And she believes this trend will continue to increase as the years press on.

Another growing request is fresher ingredients. Following along with restaurant trends, college students are asking for fresh-made entrées with “whole ingredients,” though Ingerson isn’t sure this will become a true trend among students.

Serving 8,000-plus students isn’t an easy task, Fry said, but “the vast majority are very satisfied” with the school’s offerings. Most of the requests Fry gets are for “Fruity Pebbles or another variety of soda,” she said. “Nothing earth-shattering.”

The staff, however, do their best to ensure that students get what they need. Fry noted a case of a student with a medical condition, likely a glycogen storage disease, that required him to eat cornstarch, which UGA Food Services accommodated by keeping cornstarch on hand for the student.

Recipes have to pass the test

New recipes always go through a testing phase before they go onto the menu.

Varin explained that, for example, if a new vegan entrée was requested, he might go to his chefs at the four dining commons and ask them to create a few recipes for testing. Once the testing phase is complete, the best recipes are added to the menu. One raging success, he said, was a dessert. The chefs developed a vegan chocolate chip cupcake, which was “just as good as any other type of cupcake you may put out there on our service line,” Varin said. Vegans aren’t the only happy customers, either, he continued: “It’s been very well received both by our vegan customers and our non-vegan customers as well.”

Testing doesn’t always yield the right answers, though, as students often are unpredictable. Fry illustrated that with the example of General Tso’s Chicken, which included edamame and chicken tenders with sauce. The staff thought it would be a great way to help students eat healthier and increase ­vegetable intake.

But, Fry noted, “we had to triple or quadruple the amount of chicken in the recipe because the students avoided the edamame and other tasty vegetables and things that were in there and dug out the chicken.”

Things may not always go according to plan, but UGA Food Services is “constantly evaluating” its offerings, Varin told Sunbelt, so that it’s “able to make on-the-fly adjustments to recipes as needed.”

Adaptability is key, especially with college students.

“We’re always looking at ways to improve recipes and make them better, regardless of what that recipe is,” Varin said.

Students can get food education, too

Ingerson, as resident R.D., spends most of her day in nutrition counseling with students, a one-on-one service free to all university meal plan participants.

The No. 1 concern she sees is students trying to eat healthy and “make sure they’re on the right track.”

Second is weight management, followed by food allergies. She focuses her efforts on how students can use the dining commons’ offerings to help them reach their goals and stay (or become) healthy. At two to three students per day, nutrition counseling is “a significant part” of Ingerson’s workweek, though she estimates she sees only about 1 percent of meal plan recipients.

Ingerson also teaches two classes at the university. The first, Eating Smart, is limited to 30 students and has a waiting list nearly every semester, Ingerson said. The eight-week course highlights nutrition basics and how to eat healthy both in the dining hall and off-campus. A second course, Peer Nutrition Education, is for nutrition majors. It teaches them to give nutrition presentations at residence halls or other on-campus venues.

Additionally, UGA Food Services offers recipe cards that allow students to make their own dinners with items from the dining commons.

Ingerson’s duties don’t end there. In addition to developing posters and a variety of information, she also organizes table tent events every week.

“I write about different aspects of nutrition every single week throughout both semesters, and they don’t rotate throughout the school year,” she told Sunbelt Foodservice. She strives to ensure that the presentations always include new information with current news and “hopefully what the students are reading on blogs and internet,” she said.

UGA Food Services also does an annual Nutrition Exposition each March for National Nutrition Month. Past expositions have included stations for BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol screenings, visits from personal trainers and even a masseuse.

During fall semester of 2012, UGA Food Services launched its Food Fact Finders—nutrition information that is available in a large book in the commons—on UGA Food Services’ website and mobile app. The first step, Harper said, was to put the Food Fact Finder online; then it launched as part of an interactive menu feature called “Build Your Plate.” Harper explained that with the mobile app, students can access the day’s menu, add items to their plate and see nutrition ­information either individually or as an entire plate.

Fry emphasized the importance of this innovation: “Say you were on a weight management program, or you were a runner who wanted to ensure that you’re getting your carbs for the day or whatever your needs—it lets you select items and it will cumulatively add them together, so your protein, your vegetables, starch…It helps them select better; it helps them plan. You can plan before you even enter the dining commons what to select to help you eat the way you choose to eat that meal.”

Fry said this helps combat what she called “human nature,” the tendency to overeat in situations with a lot of food—especially appetizing food—available, such as a buffet.

UGA Food Services, as a self-operated facility, does have more flexibility than a contractor-operated facility, Fry said. Being self-operated means the staff can listen to the needs of its “paying customers” and move quickly to satisfy them.

UGA Food Services does “a lot with what we charge,” Fry believes. “We have a lot of special events. We have a lot of variety, a lot of activities and still keep our costs affordable.”