North Carolina State University has significantly upgraded campus dining through a pair of high-profile retail clusters in the past two years, the brand new On the Oval and the renovated Talley Student Union. Less flashy but also impactful are a pair of initiatives that have put the school’s dining services in the forefront of the move to deliver nutrition information to students, promote healthier eating habits and ensure that those suffering from food allergies can avoid foods with harmful ingredients.
One of the initiatives, called Dietitians Dish, was rolled out in response to a 2014 survey in which students indicated that they didn’t feel the dining department valued nutrition. Launched this past January, it highlights items on dining hall menus that could be plated together (the “dietitian’s dish”) to create a complete and healthy meal and encourages students to eat the combos created by the staff dietitians, or to develop their own healthy meal and share pictures of them on social media, something 164 students did in just the program’s first four weeks.
Dietitians Dish has also generated positive feedback for dining services, as well as more social media engagement. N.C. State dining’s Twitter following has increased by 10 percent since program launch and Instagram followers have increased by 20 percent.
“We wanted the students to learn how to identify healthy options in the dining halls and be able to create their own balanced meals from the examples we provided,” says Lisa Eberhart, the department’s director of nutrition & wellness. “For National Nutrition Month in March we challenged the students to create their own Dietitian’s Dish from the tips we had given them. The posts we received showed that students understood what it meant to create a healthy plate and were successful at doing so in the dining halls on campus.”
The second health-focused initiative undertaken by N.C. State dining in the past year was Allergy Friendly N.C. State, which links every ingredient of every menu item on campus to a central database, thus ensuring that the presence of any potential allergens are communicated dependably and accurately. The result of an almost four-year data collection effort, it has almost eliminated serious allergy incidents from campus even as the number of students with food allergies has increased, creating a safer environment for students and fostering a greater feeling of confidence in students, parents and staff, Eberhart says.
“In addition, the satisfaction of students with allergies has grown according to surveys distributed to the Food Allergy Support Group and through the allergy email list,” she notes. “Another important dividend has been recruitment of students. Parents feel comfortable and safer with the environment and the information available to their student. This is a great selling point for the school and has elevated N.C. State’s brand.”
The Food Allergy Support Group was developed by a student, dining employee and blogger Kathleen Shannon, in a partnership with dietitians from student health. It holds biweekly meetings in the Student Health building.
Allergy Friendly N.C. State is marketed in a number of ways, from a student-created blog that advertises important news and firsthand reviews regarding food allergies on campus to occasional allergy e-minders that notify students on a special email list of important allergy events, such as Food Allergy Support Group meetings or warnings (for example, about a Peanut Butter Day special event at one dining hall).
Also, dining’s website, which includes daily menus for all locations, gives students information on top allergens and all ingredients in each menu item. Interactive iPads at dining locations can be used to visualize menu allergens and ingredients as well, and social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are also heavily used to keep students in the loop about dining events and information.