It’s one thing to dream big. It’s a whole other thing to make those dreams a reality.
The University of New Hampshire (UNH) is turning its “big dreams” into reality as the Durham-based school is on track to become the healthiest campus community in the nation by 2020 with much thanks to its dining services department.
Established in 2008 by UNH President Mark Huddleston, Healthy UNH is a campuswide program that enhances the mission of the university by supporting the lifelong health and wellness of the UNH community. The vision has been to cultivate an environment in which everyone can achieve optimal health and wellness.
The program, which set the 2020 goal, focuses on education, awareness and connections to support resources for the campus community in four areas: nutrition, physical activity, psychological health and healthcare consumerism.
In order to meet this goal, UNH Dining Services had to get on board immediately. And it did.
“In 2009, we sat down and began to set goals and come up with a strategy and action plan to meet the mission,” says David Hill, director of dining hall operations. “We wanted to focus on ‘mindful eating’ and providing healthy choices to students. We also wanted to collaborate with other campus groups for ongoing education in a number of areas.”
First things first, UNH Dining Services scaled back the amount of unhealthy foods offered replacing them with more healthful choices. It also became one of the first schools in the nation to partner with the Guiding Stars Licensing Corp., which offers a rating system that identifies key information like calories, grams of fat and grams of carbohydrates, and helps inform students, faculty and staff about the most nutritious food choices.
“We didn’t take away mac & cheese or fried foods,” says Hill. “But they were no longer a focus. Instead, we offered more healthful choices so that our customers have had the opportunity to make the most nutritious choice.”
Since the introduction of the rating system, UNH Dining has been challenged to rethink ingredients and incorporate more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and fiber while reducing added salt and sugar.
“Eight years later, we inherently write better, more healthful menus,” says Hill.
Next up on the healthiest campus community to-do list was nutrition awareness.
“We collaborated with dietary interns on programs that taught students how to make better choices in the dining halls,” says Hill.
Then UNH Dining Services evaluated portion control and made some under-the-radar swaps like going from a 5-ounce bagel to a 4-ounce bagel and from a 12-inch wrap to a 10-inch wrap.
“Now, our biggest focus in on choice,” says Hill. “And on making the healthy choice easier.”
As part of this, the school is looking to leverage technology, adding air-fryers to its grill stations and incorporating more plant-based proteins, while reducing its use of red meat.
“Over the past two years, we’ve reduced our use of red meat by 20 percent,” says Hill. “We didn’t take away red meat, but instead we steered guests toward other options. Like in the grill for example—we still offered a hamburger, but alongside it there were turkey burgers, salmon burgers and vegan burgers. By offering more choice, we were able to drive consumption down.”
Adding more seafood to the menu has also been key. In fact, over the past two years, UNH has increased its seafood purchases by 18 percent.
“One of our chefs had the idea to do a grain bowl bar offering made-to-order grain-based salads,” says Hill. “The first time he did it, we only served about 100 students. The second time, though, we served about 300. The third time, we served more than 600 students. It’s now one of our most popular bars, and it taught us that sometimes a new idea takes a little time and finesse to be successful.”
With three years left to hit the mark, UNH Dining Services is far from finished.
“As part of our Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), we chose 10 food and nutrition initiatives for assessment and verification,” says Hill.
These range from standards regarding regular fruit, vegetable and whole grain availability, plant-based food options and healthy desserts and a set number of wellness meal combos that adhere to specific food group and nutrient profile criteria.
“Presently under the guidance of the dietitian, our dietetic intern students have created a variety of wellness meals, which use ingredients regularly available in the dining halls,” says Hill, citing examples such as berry delicious oatmeal or a harvest grain salad with curry dressing. “Plans are underway to have all 10 initiatives fully assessed, completed and ready for PHA verification this month for all three dining halls, as well as the Union Court, Dairy Bar and Wildcatessen retail units.”
There are also plans to expand its allergen-friendly concept to all dining halls and further collaborate with groups on campus for programs like the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative, where UNH Dining Services brings students into its kitchens to teach them how to prepare healthful meals from scratch.
“The biggest challenges for us have been on the marketing side and the manufacturer side,” says Hill. “We need to be better at getting the word out to our students, staff and faculty about all that we have and are doing to make this campus healthier. And we need to impress upon manufacturers the need for ‘cleaner’ labels and ingredients.”
Beyond menus, UNH Dining has also worked to improve sustainability with trayless dining, by reducing food waste with studies as well and with its Wildcat Plate—which depicts recommended food groups like fruits, whole grains and protein, much like a similar plate used at Harvard.
“UNH has three dining halls—Holloway Commons, Philbrook, Stillings—and a retail venue that have earned a 3-star rating from the Green Restaurant Association,” says Hill.
In order to achieve that rating, UNH had to meet certain goals for recycling, chlorine-free compostable disposables, energy-efficient appliances, local and organic foods, sustainable seafood, vegan and vegetarian purchases, Green Seal-certified cleaning products and hand soap, composting food waste, touchless sensor faucets, waterless urinals and much more.
“We’ve come a long way, but there are still plenty of ways to improve further,” says Hill. “We will continue to deliver our message regarding our successes and initiatives to all stakeholders, community, organizations and media outlets.”