President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Food for Thought
February 8, 2012
To paraphrase Napoleon, students study on their stomachs, and Princeton Dining Services sees to it that nourishment is never in short supply—from three square meals a day in our residential college dining halls, Graduate College, and Center for Jewish Life to lighter fare at six cafes and a well-stocked “food gallery” and convenience store at Frist Campus Center. Last year, more than 2 million meals were served on campus, not including those consumed at Prospect House and three additional cafes managed by Restaurant Associates, a New York-based hospitality company. The numbers are impressive. In 2010–11, for example, members of our University community consumed 247,000 pounds of fresh chicken and turkey, 10,077 pounds of coffee, 7,665 gallons of ice cream, and an estimated 5,520,000 individual Cheerios! I think it is safe to say that Princeton has more than made up for its mid-19th-century decision to stop serving meals—a move that led to the establishment of eating clubs, whose offerings are not included in these figures.
But statistics tell only part of the story of Dining Services, which has made eating at Princeton more pleasure than penance since its current director, Stu Orefice, joined our University community 20 years ago. Of course, there is no substitute for favorite childhood dishes, but even these have made an occasional appearance, thanks to the annual “There’s No Place Like Home” contest, in which parents are invited to submit their son’s or daughter’s favorite recipe—the winning entries to be served on Valentine’s Day in all six residential colleges. However, as most of you know, it was not always thus.
Two decades ago, a single chef developed a common, relatively limited menu for our residential colleges, while students were restricted to a fixed number of dining hall meals per week within a narrow range of hours. And in this pre-Frist era, a drab cafeteria in East Pyne provided students with their only retail-style alternative to dining halls and eating clubs. Today, in contrast, variety abounds. With the advent of the four-year residential college system, each dining facility has been assigned its own chef-manager with a mandate to create a distinctive menu in friendly competition with each other. Serveries have been modernized and expanded with the introduction of such features as grills and pizza ovens, and meal plans now present our students with a number of attractive options. They can, for instance, elect to take their meals in both their eating club and residential college or to enter our dining halls as often as they wish, rather than being bound by a “three swipes and you’re out” rule. Visiting chefs and theme-based meals have added to this eclecticism, as has a growing emphasis on cooking food to order.
Dining Services has also made healthy eating a priority in recent years, not simply through ingredient choices and preparation methods, but by giving its customers the tools they need to shape their own diets. A groundbreaking online interactive menu allows diners to ascertain the nutritional value of their meals—from calories to carbohydrates to cholesterol. They can filter menus for allergens and readily identify vegetarian and vegan offerings, pork products, and “conscious cuisine” choices developed in consultation with healthful cooking exponent Cary Neff. Items that qualify for this designation must, among other things, generate no more than 30 percent of their calories from fat, use whole foods, and exclude artificial ingredients. Another designation on these menus is “earth-friendly entrée,” which means that 80 percent of a dish contains “sustainable, organic or local ingredients.” And, with the help of students in the Princeton Environmental Institute/Grand Challenges Internship Program, Dining Services has also identified the carbon footprint of 150 foods, giving diners a further means of weighing the implications of their menu choices.
It is here, in the realm of environmentally conscious eating, that Dining Services has emerged as a national pacesetter. Drawing inspiration from our students, whose Greening Princeton initiative has played an important role in making Princeton a more sustainable community, Stu and his colleagues have rethought the practices that have traditionally defined food service operations. Between 2007 and 2011, purchases of sustainably produced food rose from 36 percent to 66 percent, while the purchase of food produced within a 250-mile radius of Princeton rose from 27 to 59 percent, well ahead of our peers. Among other points of pride, ours is the first university to partner with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, which promotes sustainable fishing practices through consumer education, with 80 percent of our seafood purchases adhering to sustainable principles. As for meat and poultry, every effort is made to ensure that suppliers adhere to humane and natural methods of husbandry. Dining Services is equally conscious of its output, sending food waste to a local pig farm and introducing tray-free eating in our dining halls, a decision that promises to reduce energy costs, water usage, carbon dioxide emissions, and wastage.
Perhaps the evolution of Dining Services is best encapsulated in two questions. In the past, the first thing staff would ask was “What does this food cost?” Today, it is “Where does this food come from?”—a question that, if asked enough, can benefit us all.