Student input essential for Dining Services changes

Few students think about the planning that goes into each dining hall meal when they wait in line at one of the five Williams dining halls. Most do not think about nutritional content as they rush through the line, picking a slice of pepperoni pizza and Eph fries. However, these issues stand at the core of Williams nutritionist Ginny Skorupski’s job.

Skorupski believes that over time, students have become increasingly aware of their eating habits. At the same time, she is often “appalled” to see what students have on their trays. Nutritional awareness, including low fat eating, is an increasing concern for both individual students and dining services as a whole.

However, Dining Services does not profess to be, as Skorupski says, “The low-fat way to go.” Instead, they try to offer a wide range of choices. Although most food items are not cooked with low fat eating in mind, Skorupski points out that, “Almost any eating style can find a way to eat satisfactorily, most of the time.” Considering the sheer numbers and diversity of the student body, it is an ambitious aspiration.

Every year, a committee comsisting of Director of Dining Services Jim Hodgkins, Skorupski, Dining Hall management, production employees from various units and the Operations Administrator meets with the intention of tackling the task of preparing the annual Dining Hall menu. The resulting menus are a combination of nutritional eating concerns, production ability, storage and labor limitations, budget limitations and student response to certain foods.

Hodgkins explains that it is a mixture of constituencies which finally determine whether a certain food item is here to stay or on the way out. Some of the biggest concerns are student response to an item, usually measured by how much is consumed at a meal, and the ability of the staff to cook, handle and serve the food. For example, a few years ago, dining services started offering low fat mayonnaise. Not only did the consumption of mayonnaise decrease, but the cooking staff was also unable to use the mayonnaise in many of the food recipes.

Dining services has made progress over the last few years. They now have a computer system, which catalogues every recipe in a database, allowing employees to change any recipe’s serving size as needed. For example, if someone wanted the recipe for knock-you-nakeds to make – but not at dining hall proportions – the computer program changes the recipe according to serving size nearly instantaneously.

Skorupski predicts within the next two years, Dining Services will buy the add-on to the program, which would allow them to calculate nutritional information for any recipe. Presently, students can access the ingredients for any item in the dining hall, including the oil in which it is cooked. However, they cannot determine the protein, carbohydrate, or saturated fat content.

Thus far, Williams has been unable to purchase this program, in part because of budget restrictions. However, the primary constraint is time. Once the program is installed, each item in each recipe must have its nutritional information entered in separately, a painstaking process to which Dining Services has yet been able to commit. Still, Skorupski and Hodgkins agree that this new computer program is in the near future for Williams.

Leigh Nisonson ’01, a member of the Dining Services Committee, says that the amount, quality, and availability of both vegetarian meals and low fat items is brought up at nearly every committee meeting. The Dining Service Committee is contains mostly students, headed up by Hodgkins, and has different members of Dining Services at each meeting. The committee is one of the main ways that Dining Services gets student feedback.

Skorupski believes that over the last few years, vegetarian meals have become more creative and less of the “heavy, fatty, cheesy” foods that were prevalent in the past. However, vegetarian meals are still the least-eaten items in the dining hall. As such, Dining Services considers it nearly impossible to provide more of them. Hodgkins notes another reason there are not more low fat options available in dining halls is because “as a group, students have not asked.” At the same time, Hodgkins explains that students do have considerable influence.

A few years ago, Dining Services committed to preparing one reduced fat item on the hot bar for every dinner. Skorupski explains that the project entailed a lot of extra work and time, and was not as well received by the student body as Dining Services had hoped. As a result of these outcomes, Dining Services took a step back from this commitment the following year.

This year, students on the Dining Services Committee have seriously discussed offering certain snack bar foods in the Dining Hall, such as Boca Burgers and veggie burgers. Nisonson notes one of the more exciting ideas is to have a grill in dining halls on which students could cook sandwiches and omelets.

Nisonson said that as much as the committee complains about issues such as lack of low fat and vegetarian foods, “Generally everyone on the committee is happy with using and being creative with the things offered.”

Both Hodgkins and Skorupski attest to the power of student input to make changes in the dining hall. Dining Services has a website full of information, accessible through www.williams.edu, that includes a place to make suggestions and comments. They also invite students to stop in either Skorupski or Hodgkins’ offices to talk about and discuss new ideas. E-mailing suggestions to a Dining Service Committee member or posting ideas on the napkin board in any of the dining halls is often an effective means, as well. Skorupski sums up students’ influence in Dining Services by professing, “Anything is possible, especially if it is perceived as a reflection of what the students want.”

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