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Power Players
UMass Dining does more than serve meals Rick Mandelkorn; courtesy of Bruner/Cott
The Blue Wall retail dining complex is one of the highlights of campus dining at UMass.

UMass Dining does more than serve meals

From an innovative meal kit program to prioritizing local sourcing, fresh preparation and authenticity in its menus, UMass Dining remains at the cutting edge of college dining trends.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) has one of the most prominent dining programs in America. Ranked No. 1 by the Princeton Review for Best Campus Food the last two years and in the top 10 for the last seven, the program touches every corner of campus with over 22,000 meal plan holders and serves some 45,000 meals daily, or more than six million annually.

UMass Dining Services oversees more than 35 locations, including four AYCTE facilities on campus, as well as dining operations at the private, 1,800-member University of Massachusetts Club in Boston. It also consults with Westfield State University on its campus dining program. In 2020, the program will add an all-new dining commons with a teaching kitchen, edible garden and student experience area.

With a mission to serve a variety of healthy, flavorful meals featuring local, regional and world cuisine in a sustainable and environmentally conscious manner, UMass Dining sources from more than a hundred local farmers and value-added suppliers and purchases more than 30 percent of its produce locally. It has documented its sustainability efforts in a publication titled Making Local, Healthy, Sustainable Delicious: The How-To Guide for Foodservice Operators

The dining program menu emphasizes reducing sodium in recipes, serving more fruits and vegetables, providing portion control through a “small plate with big flavor” philosophy and serving whole grains, plant-based proteins and sustainable seafood options. To augment that healthy lifestyle message, the department even hosts a 5K on campus that is now in its ninth year. 

The culinarily driven dining program strives to build community through food, with 15 authentic world cuisines available at any given time to the widely diverse campus. Of those, sushi is the most popular, with 4,000 handcrafted rolls served each day. One of the results is that 70 percent of UMass students surveyed indicate that UMass Dining was important in their decision to attend the school.

Those numbers are no doubt helped by a variety of extra food-related programs and activities such as the 15 Cooking/Baking/Chocolate 101 classes offered to student on a meal plan each year and the Taste of Home Cookbook, now in its 10th edition, which features recipes from student families. Hand-printed copies are presented to families during the annual Family Weekend and more than 40 recipes from the cookbook are served in the dining commons over the course of the year.

Relationships with families is also bolstered by allowing parents and family members of students on the meal plan to always eat free in the dining commons when they visit campus. 

In all, UMass Dining hosts more than 60 special events each year, along with the Annual Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference, now in its 24th year, which brings celebrity and college chefs from around the country to Amherst each summer.

Other beyond-the-kitchen initiatives for UMass Dining include partnering with the university’s nutrition department on a comprehensive study looking at the effects of healthy eating on academic performance, whose preliminary results show that students with an increased consumption in fiber and vegetable proteins have a higher GPA while those with an increased consumption of sugar and caffeine have a lower GPA.

Assisting sustainability efforts in the dining program is the UMass Permaculture Initiative through the creation of on-campus permaculture gardens. Founded in 2010, it brings together students, faculty, staff and community members to convert underutilized grass lawns on campus into six edible, educational and beautiful gardens, with the flagship garden at Franklin Dining Commons becoming the sustainability “hot spot” on campus.

One way the dining program keeps up with student trends and preferences is through its Student Ambassador program, which engages 25 to 30 students each year to serve as secret shoppers as well as dining ambassadors. The group meets six times a year to go over current and future events affecting the dining program. The ambassadors also submit weekly feedback to a private online ambassador forum, where they comment on their most recent dining experiences, and to which the dining management team has full access and to which they can respond freely.

UMass Dining’s most recent innovation is a premade meal kit program call UMass Fresh that is similar to Blue Apron Meal Kits. It offers staff and students meals made with the best local, healthy and sustainable ingredients by UMass chefs that customers need only to reheat using easy-to-follow instructions. The program has both a daily selection of meals and holiday versions for Thanksgiving, December and even the Super Bowl.

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