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Local food and sustainability now hallmarks of UR dining program

One thing Cam Schauf knows after decades of running dining services at the University of Rochester: don’t change things up too much in April or May.

This high-stress period at the end of second semester is not the time to experiment at the expense of comfort food offerings.

“I’ve had some students come in on Steak Night and eat a bowl of cereal,” Schauf said.

Cam Schauf, left, of the University of Rochester, and David Feist, of Harvest Table, oversee dining on the river campus. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter
Cam Schauf, left, of the University of Rochester, and David Feist of Harvest Table oversee dining on the river campus. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

But changing things is what Schauf has been doing for at least the last 15 years, culminating in this year’s roll-out of Harvest Table, a culinary group that is part of Aramark dining service, but with a stronger emphasis on sustainability and hospitality amenities.  He’s director of campus dining services and the co-chair of the UR Council on Sustainability.

The new dining program, which is featured on UR’s River Campus and being introduced in stages at Eastman School of Music, relies heavily on locally produced foods, gets away from bulk purchases of processed foods, and tries to engage students more deeply in what they’re eating.

That engagement can range from “Napkin Talk,” a feed-back system using messages scrawled on paper napkins and attached to a bulletin  board, to a how-to class on easy-to-make pickles that the dining center’s executive chef recently taught.  During last week’s local foods week, the dining program held an Iron Chef-like competition and a team of students came in second in the people’s choice category.

The campus’s two main dining halls, Danforth and Douglass, are set up with multiple stations devoted to different styles of cuisine, such as pizza and subs at one and plates of pasta with custom selections of toppings and sauces at another.

“The beauty of having multiple stations is you can go out (on a limb,) but not all five stations at one time,” said Schauf, who has worked in institutional dining for 40 years. Due to student requests, he began incorporating sustainability measures into the dining program 15 years ago, and Harvest Table has ramped up those efforts this year.

“Students have been asking for a long time for healthy options,” Schauf said. But finding out what that means takes some investigation and some trial and error. It could be a healthier cheeseburger for one student, and a totally vegan diet for another, he said.

When the dining centers introduced house-made ketchup in an effort to get away from the preservatives and unnecessary ingredients in some familiar mass-produced brands, students complained loudly. As a result, both styles of ketchup are available now. Locally produced cream cheese, which has a more noticeable flavor than the brands widely available, also didn’t go over so well.

Schauf and David Feist, guest experiences manager for Harvest Table at UR, said they continue to offer these better-for-you foods, but include choices and suggest students mix the products so they can get used to the new tastes.

Childhood favorites like chicken fingers are still on the menu, but not the processed and frozen type many cafeterias offer. At UR, they are made from scratch. And the chicken is likely to come from a free-range setting within 100 miles of campus.

UR students provide feedback on the dining services there by way of napkin notes. Some here ask for a particular local bakery's pies to be added to the menu. Others praise cafeteria workers. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter
UR students provide feedback on the dining services there by way of napkin notes. Some here ask for a particular local bakery’s pies to be added to the menu. Others praise cafeteria workers. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

Local sourcing of ingredients is key to whatever diet students follow, the food service directors said. Harvest Table has been able to source about 60 percent of what it offers from local vendors. And that has an impact on the local economy.

Feist said the college buys locally roasted coffee from Java’s, Coffee Connection, and Finger Lakes Roasters, with each supplying one or more coffee vending locations on campus.  Schauf pointed out that Coffee Connection was able to purchase an additional roaster because of the business it gained from UR and UR named one of its coffee bars Connections.

Similarly, supplying UR with produce, meat and dairy products grown and produced locally has helped Headwater Food Hub expand, said Chris Hartman, founder of the town of Ontario-based company.

“The challenging nut to crack is not just consumer direct and farm-to-table restaurants. It’s really how to supply, how to connect with institutional buyers, and really participate in the big world of food distribution,” Hartman said.

Hartman started working with UR about 10 years ago when he and Schauf met at the South Wedge Farmer’s Market that Hartman also began. At first, Hartman would offer bumper-crop produce to UR as it was available on a one-off basis. Over time the relationship grew to Headwater becoming a major supplier for the university.

UR, meanwhile, hired chefs instead of kitchen managers to work in its dining services, and they started planning menus around what was in season and grown locally, rather than planning a menu first and they trying to source the ingredients.

Schools and other institutions are starting to look to universities for examples of how to become more sustainable in their dining services, Hartman said. “UR has become a sort of pushing-the-envelope leader in this way,” he said.  And other institutions have started working with Headwaters as a result of its success in institutional supply.

“Harvest Table and Aramark are very much leading that movement,” Hartman said. “We see this as certainly how we’re going to continue to grow in this industry, and how farmers are able to benefit and grow.”

He also credited Schauf with leading the sustainability movement in college settings. “He is a champion of this. This would not be happening without him.”

UR is one of five client universities Aramark is servicing with its Harvest Table program, said Matt Thompson, Harvest Table culinary director.  The program began 18 months ago with three colleges in North Carolina. UR and Georgetown University came on board for the 2018-19 school year.

About UR’s program, Thompson said, “We’ve seen fantastic feedback from all angles: from the client, students and employees.”

The program not only considers sourcing, health and customer experience, but expands sustainability to waste produced by the dining service operation. Schauf said incoming students are now given a reusable clamshell container they can use to get a meal to go. They exchange the container – washed or unwashed – for a clean one when they drop by again, or have a credit added to their account for a container whenever that next time is.

Feist said Harvest Table worked with the Starbucks shop on campus so students could use the dining service’s ordering app to place orders for drinks before they arrived. The drinks aren’t made until the students arrive with their reusable mugs. The Starbucks shop is one of the most productive on-campus shops in the country, Feist said, with a record of 1,345 mobile orders in one day. Half of those orders came through the campus dining services app.

The dining service workers also stay on top of food usage by weighing and recording everything that isn’t eaten. Some is reused, perhaps in a different form, some goes to soup kitchens, and some is composted.

This process makes people aware of when they’ve made too much food.

“You’re going to end up weighing your mistakes at the end of the day,” Schauf said. Last fall the university was recognized for being a sustainability leader with this program, he said, but then it reduced its food wastes by another 37 percent.

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