As one of the healthiest colleges in the US, NC State University in Raleigh, NC is a leader in serving nutritious, craveable and convenient options to its more than 30,000 students. Dining options that are plant-forward, sustainable and responsibly sourced are growing in importance to students from the time they apply to school to their daily decisions to eat on or off campus.
Under the guidance of Lisa Eberhart, RD, LDN, CDE, Director of Nutrition and Nutritional Wellness, NC State Dining has become a model for serving up popular trends, while also providing options for every student to feel comfortable eating on campus regardless of their specific dietary needs.
We sat down with Lisa to get more information on how NC State Dining is meeting the demands of the next generation, and elevating the NC State brand to attract new students.
Do you see college dining as a leader among other food service operations?
I think business and industry is really following our lead. The tech sector, like Google, and others that have large food service operations on their campuses, basically, they tell us that our students become their customers. And so, I think the expectation is there.
One example of things that we are already doing that you can see rolling out in other food service operations is the nutrition analyses on menu boards. People expect that. They expect to know what's in their food, how many calories are in it, and the next thing is going to be they're going to expect to know the allergens. Food service has to reach that expectation.
All the things that college food service is doing is something that elevates the whole campus brand. I feel like NC State Dining has elevated NC State's brand, and I know places like UMass, and Virginia Tech, and some other well-known college and university food services definitely elevate the brand, and administration has noticed that. I think the changes happening with food service, colleges and universities did lead the way on that, because we had to.
How do you keep up with the food trends that are popular with the next generation, and what are some of those trends?
We work to keep our finger on the pulse of this generation. One thing we know is that they love things that are customizable and made for them. That lends itself well to controlling allergens. Sustainability and nutrition are also a big thing to a lot of students now. If it's sustainable or local, to them that equates with healthy. We leverage that here. We have our own cows on campus so all the milk and all the ice cream on our campus is from our own cows. Plant-forward is also really becoming important, not only to students, but to concerned suppliers and other groups trying to promote a healthy system and more plant forward menus. Most students are quite on board with that.
How do plant-based protein sources like peanuts fit into these food trends and in your dining program?
As far as plant-forward and customization are concerned, people like nuts on food. You know, they might like peanuts in a dish, as long as it's labeled. And as for plant-forward eating, peanuts play a big role in that. We have a peanut butter grinder here on campus in our dining halls. We try to have our peanut butter ground right there, to order, and the student does it themselves so that it's very contained and there's not a chance of cross contact behind the line. We also use individual peanut butter packets, because students want peanut butter; they really do. So, we make sure that's available to them, while being very mindful of issues that other students have.
How does NC State Dining accommodate students with a wide range of dietary restrictions and food allergies?
Well, the main thing we do is total transparency. Everything on our menu is analyzed and we have complete ingredient lists for everything. We want you to have the most information possible. If students have special dietary needs, they want some confidence when they’re eating and not thinking “oh, I hope this doesn't have any peanuts in it, or hopefully it doesn't conflict with my religious beliefs.”
We really believe in complete transparency and that puts some onus back on the student. The student has some responsibility themselves to make sure they're investigating what they're eating, and then also it makes us very accountable with our recipes and production methods, so that what we say we are serving them, we really are serving them. That's a real important part of trust. You know, you don’t want to make a mistake and stay in the shadow of students' trust, and we try not have those mistakes. And if we do, we make sure that we include the students in the ideas we have to correct it, and make sure that we'll never have that mistake again.
What advice would you give to a new student who has a dietary restriction?
Well the first question I would ask, before I'd even come to a campus, is does the food service on this campus know what's in their food? A lot of food services don't, and if they don't know, the student could be constantly having to have them prepare something special. And students just want to be like everybody else. We want students to be able to eat whatever they want on this campus safely, because we're armed with knowledge of what’s in the food. And you can only have knowledge of what's in the food if that food service has done the hard work of figuring out what's in their food, and that's what I would look for if I was a student. Information is really key.