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How Universities Are Serving Up Food Education Alongside Degrees

Health & Wellness |  5.29.2018

If you ever find yourself at an Arizona State University dining hall, a few things might stand out.

Want a burger? You’ll have to walk past the salad bar first. Tempted by French fries? You’ll find carrots and hummus strategically placed nearby. Ready to check out? Not until you walk past a fruit basket.

Efforts to influence food choices in dining halls across the country are imperative to helping students get into the habit of opting for healthy foods, so they can accomplish their best while at school and set the stage for life-long habits. According to a study published in Preventive Medicine, 95 percent of college students fail to eat recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. Combined with the fact that more than 60 percent of students report that they don’t get enough physical activity, according to a Northwestern Medicine and Northeastern Illinois study, college students need to be surrounded with more opportunities to make healthy decisions.

As a food provider to college students on more than 400 campuses, it’s our responsibility to promote healthier choices, and over the years we’ve learned a few successful techniques every campus should try.

To start, we partner with colleges and universities like Arizona State University to help students pursue healthier eating habits. These efforts include strategic placement of healthy food options and our Feed Your Potential campaign (FYP365), an engagement and education program which connects our dietitians, chefs and other experts with students to inspire and encourage healthy eating. In the fall of 2018, we started providing students the opportunity to opt-in to our Feed Your Potential email communications when they register for a meal plan.

FYP365 gives our Instagram (@Aramark) followers fresh new recipes, healthy cooking tips, and advice from chefs and registered dietitians.

“We did this because reaching new students with information about healthy options increases the chance that they will become more informed and engaged in making good choices,” explains Dan Wainfan, Associate Vice President of Health and Wellness. “We’ve seen that new students who are enrolling in a meal plan for the first time are very interested in learning more from our chefs and dietitians about nutrition and healthy lifestyles,” says Wainfan.

Forming those healthy habits – or not – often happens in the early days of college. According to the Partnership for a Healthier America, students’ obesity rates increase by more than 15 percent during their first year at college or university. For many students, the college years are the first time they are on their own, and they are presented with a multitude of choices they have never had before.

In addition to the weight gain, food has an impact on energy levels and general productivity. When students learn to make healthier eating choices, their focus and, in turn, academic outcomes, improve. Helping students make healthier eating choices isn’t just the right thing to do -- it also helps students feed their potential in the classroom as well.

“In terms of eating, some of the biggest challenges are that many students come in as young adults who are just learning how to take care of themselves without parental guidance,” said Karen Moses, Director of Wellness and Health Promotion at Arizona State. “This means they’re making their own decisions about their daily food choices. Depending on where they live they make choices at dining halls, off-campus restaurants, or preparing food at their apartments and it’s our responsibility to educate them on healthy food choice.” 

We work closely with our university and college partners, such as ASU, to provide a variety of healthier dining options for students. When ASU recently hosted a campus farmers market, for instance, we were there to showcase options available on-campus for students. In addition, our ASU chefs – and other Aramark university chefs across the country – have been given training on increasing plant-forward dining options on campus, ensuring that students will have greater access to fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

ASU welcomes new and returning Sun Devils with an opportunity to try healthy snack samples and fresh produce.

Sara Royce, General Manager for Aramark at ASU, had her team enlist university dieticians for the first two weeks of the school year, placing them at dining hall tables to answer questions and offer help to any students seeking guidance.

We offer ongoing programs, from cooking demos that help students transition to cooking for themselves, to the monthly “Lunch with the Nutritionist” event. “We also have an Allergen Captain Program in every facility to help students struggling with finding the right foods, and big events to make nutrition exciting with local vendors and local farms,” Royce added. 

Compounding the uphill climb of encouraging students to adopt healthier lifestyles, many colleges and universities are highly transient places. Arizona State has between 17,000 and 25,000 new students in the mix each year who, according to Moses, receive large amounts of information about campus life when they arrive. “There is a lot to learn during the freshman year. We are here to support students with information that is readily accessible to help them develop good eating habits that will remain long after they have graduated.” From the moment they step on campus and throughout their college experience it’s important for students to know what options are available to them.

For these reasons, understanding past dining habits and general eating experiences of students is crucial, Moses said, and what is learned in the dining hall – much like the subjects taught in the classrooms – often sticks with them for life. 

“Students aren’t always going to know what to choose, so we need to teach them,” Royce said. “We need it to be easy to make the choice even if they’re not thinking about it. If there are things we can do that still allow for food choice while improving the chances for students to choose healthy options, that is our responsibility.”

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