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Chef Andrew Urbanetti and Soup.JPG All photos courtesy of Harvard Dining Services
To supplement the regular seasonal cycle menu, HUDS also laid out events for each month that allow it to engage with and celebrate the university’s diverse community through food, including World Food Day in October. Photo shows Executive Chef Andrew Urbanetti with one of the featured soups.

Harvard Dining meets today’s challenges with menu, sustainability and diversity initiatives

More menu variety featuring customization, cultural integrity, environmental awareness and locally sourced ingredients highlight offerings for the 2022-23 school year

Upon her arrival on the Harvard University campus in April 2021 as managing director of the oldest collegiate foodservice in the country, Smitha Haneef laid out a clear vision of priorities for transforming the Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) hospitality experience. HUDS serves an average of 22,000 meals a day during the academic year, and around five million annually.

She began with a series of listening and learning sessions across all the university’s constituencies that produced a series of pilots deployed over the 2021-22 school year in preparation for a more robust program slated for 2022-23, when pandemic-related restrictions were expected to be fully lifted.

Smitha_Haneef_Managing_Director.gifPhoto: Smitha Haneef took over as managing director of Harvard Dining almost two years ago and has been busy transforming the hospitality experience for a program that serves an average of 22,000 meals a day during the academic year and around five million annually.

“I spent a lot of time initially just hearing from our community,” says Haneef, who previously led hospitality at Princeton University. “I took every meeting I was offered, tasted practically every dish we made, and really studied the culture of Harvard that was developing as we emerged from COVID.”

What Haneef developed from these initial steps was an ambitious and detailed Strategic Vision centered on five areas…

• Student/Community Engagement & Advocacy

• Food & Agriculture

• Diversity & Inclusion

• Food Systems, Climate Change, Health & Environmental Impact

• Operations Strategy, Innovation, Quality Assurance & Safety

Then, last fall, HUDS launched its full-scale plan for creating what it terms “an equitable, diverse, nutritious, climate friendly and delicious hospitality and dining program.”

As a progressive step in that growth, Haneef partnered with Dr. Walter Willet, a renowned nutrition expert and professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, to launch the Harvard Food Systems Initiative (HFSI) last September through which HUDS will create a landing place for food systems conversations on campus.

In addition, Dr. David Nabarro, who leads food systems dialogues on behalf of the United Nations, came to campus and led a Harvard-centered dialogue that included undergraduate and graduate students, university staff and faculty, and food systems partners such as farmers, fishermen and advocates. This was followed by two Distinguished Faculty Lectures and a special dinner in the dining halls featuring a climate-friendly menu.

Residential Dining sees menu upgrades

For fall 2022 in Residential Dining operations for Harvard College undergraduates, HUDS put a focus on staffing, hiring or promoting more than 50 team members across its operations. The effort included offering a first-time training for existing team members who wanted to advance into new culinary positions, or to grow in kitchen leadership and responsibility, with about 20 participating in the multi-week culinary training. Haneef says as of spring 2023, HUDS is staffed at above 90% for front-line team members and close to that in the management team.

When it comes to training, HUDS looks at both the hospitality and dining ends, she notes. “Our focus is on building a team that can bring forward great hospitality experiences that are inclusive, that are experiential, that celebrate traditions but still bring new recipes,” Haneef says. “When a menu is prepared, we want to be able to tell the story and we want to be able to celebrate that menu through the right merchandising, storytelling, signage and presentation.”

The expanded staff numbers and skill enhancement allowed HUDS to introduce several menu refinements in the residential dining program that had been synthesized from student, faculty, management and culinary team inputs by Director for Culinary Operations Martin Breslin.

For instance, the salad bar was made over into a concept called Greens & Grains that made it a more complete, nutritious meal destination with weekly suggested bowl constructions such as the Big Apple or the Sesame Ginger Salmon.

In addition, the lunchtime deli bar added more variety, with ingredients for vegetarian and meat-based personally crafted sandwiches such as Mesquite Tofu & Guacamole and Toasted Cage Free Egg Salad with Pickle Chips & Tomato, along with an option for students to make a panini with the nearby panini press. Dessert got an upgrade on weeknights with a featured sweet treat centered on fruit, giving students a chance to tailor the level of their indulgence.

Lunchtime also saw a new daily chef-crafted, biodiverse, small-bite fruit or vegetable dish called Delish! that allows the culinary team to showcase their skills as well as the local bounty. Dishes they’ve created have included a fennel salad with wild Maine blueberries; roasted brussels sprouts with miso soy, sesame and chili flakes; and Latin-spiced fried green tomatoes with salsa fresca.


A recently instituted lunchtime feature is a daily chef-crafted, biodiverse, small-bite fruit or vegetable dish called Delish! that lets the culinary team showcase their skills and the local bounty. Pictured is HUDS Chef Ben Howe with some Delish! Dishes.

Another addition was Global Bistro Bowls, that each Thursday offers a restaurant-style dish celebrating a different world cuisine, such as a French bouillabaisse, a Caribbean Sancocho or an Ethiopian Doro or Misir Wat. The Global Bistro Bowls recipes are one way HUDS addresses menu diversity, Haneef says.

“There are two aspects to this,” she explains. “First, when we think about environmentally friendly menus, menu diversity is focused on the pantry, so we look at how we can incorporate biodiversity into our pantry. It’s not an easy thing to do and do at scale. The second aspect is, knowing that we have students from a majority of countries around the globe, how do we learn [about their culinary traditions] and then how do we bring that menu diversity?”

As one menu example of the synthesis of these factors, she cites a blueberry crisp created for Native American Heritage Month last fall that incorporated blueberries from a woman-led cooperative nearby Maine. “It was divine with only about five ingredients, and something that is a true example of bringing our vision to life.”


A venison stew served during the Native American Month celebration.

To get menu ideas and recipe suggestions, the program approaches not only students but its own and other university staff members.

“At the locations where we piloted [these diverse, sustainable dishes], we saw good success, but we’re still learning and have not scaled it yet,” Haneef reports. “Towards the end of the academic year, we’ll do a debrief and see if they are scalable and something we should scale.”

To supplement the regular seasonal cycle menu, HUDS also laid out events for each month that allow it to engage with and celebrate the university’s diverse community through food. LatinX heritage month featured chef-inspired arepas, ceviche, street tacos and enchiladas while for World Food Day, HUDS partnered with the Center for African Studies to bring forward students’ personal, plant-based recipes such as Bariis Iskukaris (Somali Rice). For Native American Heritage Month, chefs offered a combination of student-shared recipes, such as Nassaump from a Wampanoag student or Corn Soup from an Akwesasne Mohawk tribe member, with a chef-discovered Venison Stew from the Ojibwe people or a Three Sisters Stew from the Chickesaw.


HUDS partnered with the university’s Center for African Studies to bring forward students’ personal, plant-based recipes like Bariis Iskukaris (Somali Rice) dish during World Food Day.

Meeting community needs

In addition to more culinary flexibility, staff training also extended to occupational health and safety topics, allergen management protocols, and supporting religious and dietary needs, with HUDS also forging partnerships with the university’s Chief Diversity Officer and Office for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, as well as with spiritual leaders such as the campus rabbi and Muslim chaplains to help make the department’s services more inclusive for those communities. Meanwhile, to ensure that students with special dietary needs can enjoy full participation in the community, Campus Dietitian Karen Jew creates individualized plans based on each student’s unique needs, ensuring access to a healthy, inclusive experience.

For this spring, HUDS has added more new options in response to a student survey it conducted that include themed brunches, more breakfast variety and “deconstructed themed menus” on Monday and Wednesday nights designed to let students to create customized mezze, dim sum, ramen and other dishes, while Tuesdays and Fridays feature grill specials like Memphis hot chicken sandwiches, schnitzel, carnitas and birria tacos.

Surveys indicate that students, while still embracing traditional college type fare like pizza and fried chicken are also very much looking for “more healthful, clean options so they can lead a healthier lifestyle,” Haneef notes.

“We take student and community feedback seriously,” she stresses, “and you can see in the program that we launched for spring responds to most of what students were asking.” She cites the “deconstructed themed menus” and hot chicken sandwiches as examples of responses to requests for more individual customization and traditional college student type choices.

New lunch options for spring include “lighter, portable fare” like hot sandwiches, artichoke flatbread and vegan cottage pie, as well as global and regional cuisine-themed brunches as the program increases it menu diversity across more cultures.

The program continues to push the envelope in developing new recipes that reflect the values the program embraces. One of the most recent was a “kelp burger” that was piloted in February at a couple of cafes that incorporates sustainable ingredients sourced locally and reflects both staff creativity and responsiveness to student concerns.


The program continues to push the envelope in developing new recipes such as this plant-forward “kelp burger” that was piloted in February at a couple of cafes

The only remnant of the COVID experience the dining program still maintains at present is expanded takeout, but, generally, Harvard emphasizes a living/learning student experience where dining is more than just having a meal.

“Being in community is a key factor to a Harvard education,” Haneef stresses. “The interactions and social aspect of it are things we want to preserve as a core value, so while we provide some takeout in the undergraduate context, it’s not our biggest focus. Rather, it’s to generate hospitality and provide service in the dining halls that attract students to come back and be in community.”

Meanwhile, the issue of balancing the traditions of Harvard with the expectations of Gen Z students is not as difficult as it may sound, Haneef says, as students coming to the university actually look forward to sharing in those traditions rather than changing them. In fact, she notes that during the COVID period, “students actually missed these rituals and traditions and, because of COVID, I think the appreciation for rituals and traditions has actually grown.” At the same time, the university is “creating a lot of space for new traditions,” Haneef adds, citing Heritage Months as an example.

Graduate schools support the Strategic Vision

HUDS operates the Annenberg Dining Hall, which is the primary dining facility for first-year students, along with a dozen house dining rooms, primarily for undergraduate upperclass students. It also serves students in five of the university’s professional schools and added the new Salata Institute for Climate & Sustainability and the Bloomberg Center for Cities to its service network over the past year.

“Each of these professional schools has its own priorities that our hospitality program looks to meet and exceed, and each has a management team that is focused on the program at that venue,” Haneef says. “Menus are not duplicated [across the different schools] and I expect to see at least 20 different menus being enacted by our team on any given day or any given meal period.”

Last fall saw the launch of a new meal plan for graduate students called GradPlus that features an expanded offering of campus cafe locations and extends to Harvard Extension School students. It allows them to purchase a declining balance meal plan with $400 allotted for the fall semester and $500 for the spring semester, plus a 10% discount for any purchase made with the meal plan.

It can be used at six HUDS cafes located at Harvard Law School, Harvard Kennedy School, the Science and Engineering Complex, Harvard Divinity School, the School of Public Health, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. (HUDS had extended its professional hospitality expertise to the Harvard Law School, the Harvard Divinity School and the Science & Engineering Complex back in 2020 and 2021.)

HUDS operations at the Law School originally launched under COVID restrictions, but it’s now at full operation, including daily catering for dozens of events as well as two cafes, a coffee bar and a pub. At the peak of service, all three are open simultaneously serving a nutritious, fresh array of choices that also support numerous dietary needs, including kosher, halal, or the student government supported Plant Positive focus.

“I love working with produce from farms where we have long-standing, mutually supportive relationships,” says Andrew Urbanetti, executive chef for Harvard Law School. “I love knowing the farmer who grew the native blue Hubbard squash that I’m then turning into a soup.”

That sustainability focus is one of the areas where these graduate schools support the expanded HUDS mission. In addition, operations at the Harvard T. H Chan School of Public Health regularly operationalizes the latest guidance from the school’s Department of Nutrition, the Science & Engineering Complex models the campus’ sustainability ethos in its newest “living” building, Harvard Kennedy School regularly hosts world leaders and dialogues driving global policy with menus that embody the health, nutrition and climate goals they espouse and Harvard Divinity School models diversity of culture and spiritualty through food.

“These venues are wildly different,” notes Laurie Torf, associate director for retail operations, “but it’s so exciting to see them bustling with activity, and with amazing food.” For example, Chef Robert Torino at the Science & Engineering Complex celebrated LatinX Heritage Month with a series of specials throughout September, and in October helped the University celebrate several sustainable building awards with locally sourced, entirely plant-based catered functions.

Crimson Catering, HUDS’ on-premise catering group, added its contribution to supporting the Strategic Vision with a Commencement celebrating the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022, plus a full schedule of reunions. Over three weeks of activities, it served more than 100,000 meals through 250-plus events across Harvard’s multiple Boston-area campuses with the aid of more than a hundred colleagues from other Campus Services departments who worked outside their traditional roles to execute the massive undertaking.

Under the leadership of new Director for Hospitality & Catering Kyle Ronayne, Crimson Catering launched a climate-friendly, seasonal menu for the Fall 2022 semester, and is using it to support a return to a full schedule of campus events with nutritious choices that put locally sourced plants at the center of the plate being emphasized.

“Our community is eager to resume in person gathering, and they’re letting us help them re-think menus to be more inclusive for a community that embraces climate positive choices and wants to be flexible for a broad variety of dietary needs,” says Ronayne. “Clients approach the idea with some trepidation, but I’ve gotten incredible feedback from folks whose guests applaud the move and come back for seconds of the delicious food.”

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