Dining Services debuts Net Nutrition service

In order to better help students plan balanced diets and avoid food allergens, Dining Services has recently introduced an online nutritional content calculator. Net Nutrition, using a simple-to-use web and mobile interface, allows students to calculate the nutritional content of a dining hall meal they might choose to eat.

The service provides users with a nutritional label for each food product, as well as a list of ingredients for each daily entrée, side and Bakeshop offering.

According to Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of student dining, the implementation of Net Nutrition is a response to students’ desire for more transparency about what they were eating. This is in part because the number of students with food allergies has increased in recent years and also because students are increasingly interested in the caloric content of the foods available to them, according to Director of Dining Services Robert Volpi.

However, Lucy Bergwall ’15, a member of the student group Real Food, stressed that caloric and nutritional information does not fully encompass the healthfulness of food.

“I think that Net Nutrition is moving in a good direction in terms of providing students with more information … but it’s unfortunate that it [may promote] a habit of calorie counting, rather than encouraging a more holistic approach to eating that might focus on eating balanced meals made with quality ingredients,” Bergwall said. “Quality to me is not necessarily what shows up on a nutrition facts label, but instead relates more to where the food comes from and how and by whom it is produced.”

According to Abayasinghe and Volpi, Dining Services’ transparency will not end with allergens and nutritional content. Dining Services is currently working to add vegetarian, vegan and local tabs to Net Nutrition so that students can filter results by these standards. The logistical complexity of Dining Services’ purchasing has made such changes difficult, but Abayasinghe praised Real Food member Eirann Cohen ’15 for working with them over the summer to develop this capability. “[Cohen went] through all of our storerooms and identified every single item … So we learned from that process and now can understand how we can integrate a local tab, a vegan tab, a vegetarian tab,” he said.

Dining Services is also working to improve labeling within dining halls, according to Volpi. Though the technology is still developing, Dining Services envisions eventually putting Quick Response (QR) labels in the dining halls, which would allow students to scan a code and obtain nutritional information using a smart phone.

Volpi said that this is a key part of his transparency initiative: “We want to be able to see students scan that QR [with their smart phone] and know more about the foods that they are eating.”

Abaysinghe elaborated on what types of information students may be able to obtain from QR labels. “Some of that information might be locally where it comes from, what are the practices of the employer – [whether] they believe in social justice and things like that,”  he explained.

Dining Services does not currently label either online or in dining halls from where non-local food is sourced, though local foods are often marked as such in the dining halls.

As their office begins to reveal more about what is in their food and where it comes from, Volpi and Abayasinghe agreed that there is an impetus to purchase less food from factory farms and large scale industrial farming operations, which is where the vast majority of the College’s food is currently sourced from, even despite recent initiatives focused on providing more local food items in campus dining halls. Dining Services is fully committed to the Real Food Challenge (RFC), an initiative started by Anim Steel ’94, which defines “real” food as local or community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane.

The goal of the RFC is to recruit universities not only in the United States but also around the world to achieve 20 percent real food purchasing by 2020.

“We firmly believe that not only will we be able to hit 20 percent [real food], but we will be able to hit 20 percent before [2020],” Abayasinghe said.

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