Dining: Fresh or Foul?

While Stanford prides itself on its technological innovation and advancement, its online dining menus, which it just unveiled last quarter, still fall short of those at many top colleges.

Stanford’s menus include only selected items and limited nutritional information. Princeton’s menus, on the other hand, indicate whether items contain pork, nuts or any animal-derived products. Yale’s menus even provide ingredients in descending order and specify whether items include possible allergens. While grilled items were added this quarter, the Stanford menu still leaves off most breakfast items, pasta bar dishes and soft-serve. The online system also does not include standardized menus or nutritional information for Olives Café, Late Nite or Wilbur Sweet Shop.

Six weeks before each quarter, a group of Stanford Dining chefs, registered dieticians and a Quality Assurance Chef meet to determine menus for the dining halls. According to Assistant Director of Stanford Dining Karen Andrews, the group takes into account feedback from general managers, student requests and post-production information. Nutritional balance, seasonality, dietary considerations, ethnic and local foods, popularity and overall food functionality are also important factors. Some students, however, have found the dining halls unresponsive to their requests. Freshman Sara Snyder says she has repeatedly requested more whole grain products like pasta and English muffins. Although managers responded that they serve whole-grain pasta at least once every five days, she says she rarely sees any whole grain foods.

“Maybe if I get quoted in this article, they will actually do something,” said Snyder.

How Accurate Are the Menus Really?

All of the dining halls follow a pre-approved five week menu cycle, but as the fine print online reads, recipes are subject to change at any time. According to 30 random meal samples at Stern and Wilbur, about 40 percent of dishes served for brunch, lunch and dinner do not appear on the menu. Wilbur fares slightly better than Stern, but not by much. Andrews attributed the variation between the online and actual menus to problems in sourcing, discrepancies in preparation standards, and the ongoing development of the online system.

According to the sampling data, soups usually follow most closely the online menus, though in the last month more variability has cropped up. Oftentimes, chefs use left-over ingredients like grilled chicken and roasted vegetables to create distinct soups, which explains why some soups do not appear on the online menus. Destination dining is also usually consistent insofar that the online items appear in the dining halls. For example, Wilbur almost always features fried rice, chow mein, mixed vegetables, and sesame soy marinated tofu. But the online menu does not include many other items that are actually served like Mongolian beef, spicy chicken, or rice noodles. “Bistro” items like steak and potatoes are also fairly consistent, but tend to run out by the end of meal periods and are replaced by left-over dishes from previous meals. The greatest discrepancy between the online and actual menu is in weekend brunch options and the “healthy bar” (pre-made salads).

The online menus, which are linked through menu management software to recipes on the USDA website, leave off many items that do not follow USDA recipes or nutritional guidelines. Chefs prepare many of their dishes as experiments by using left-over ingredients from previous meals. Additionally, chefs may choose to alter recipes or menus to meet their own standards or student requests.

“The cycle menus are perceived as guidelines for the chefs to meet the minimum acceptable levels of service,” said Andrews. “Individual chefs and dining hall managers have the flexibility and option to add more or substitute menu items based on specific requests from students or general understanding of the dining facility’s population.”

While Andrew says all chefs are supposed to consult the same online menus, many take the creative license to alter recipes and create new dishes. Oftentimes, dishes that appear online with the same name and nutritional information are prepared differently at different dining halls. For example, one night the minestrone at Stern contained cabbage, mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots and zucchini while the minestrone at Wilbur contained linguine, mushrooms and kidney beans. Andrews attributes discrepancies such as these to sourcing problems and varying chef standards. But because the online recipes are not available to students, some doubt whether chefs follow recipes or just use them as general guidelines.

“It would be nice to know the actual ingredients for the food,” said freshman Jon Kass. “Like what exactly we’re eating.”

Recycling Food?

While the dining halls do not exchange ingredients, chefs commonly recycle food from meal to meal. Andrews says that it is an acceptable operation in the food industry to use excess, “wholesome” food products in subsequent dishes. This explains why the breaded chicken breast from one night’s Caesar salad resembled the chicken parmigiana from the previous night and how one lunch’s lemon caper chicken became dinner’s chicken picatta. Chefs also often create soups from a variety of left-over ingredients.

But these creative, new dishes can compromise health standards. Doubling up on sauces can add fat, sugar and sodium. Re-cooking vegetables requires additional oil or sauce. Oftentimes, chefs mix left-over vegetables that already have their own sauces with fresh ingredients and then cloak the dish in a new sauce. These novelties do not appear on the menus even though Stanford Dining has allegedly asked that chefs change the computerized menu management prior to any changes of the actual production.

One student who did not want to be named recalled that one of the most peculiar dishes to appear at Stern last quarter was mushroom chicken. She said she could still taste the picante sauce from the previous night’s dinner underneath the cream of mushroom glaze. She also said it was common at Stern to find old, cooked vegetables mixed with left-over tofu. Students who regularly eat at Wilbur said they did not notice whether the chefs recycled food. Some students said that the dining hall’s reuse of ingredients did not bother them as long as the dishes were still palatable.

“I don’t see a problem, as long as the food is relatively fresh (e.g. using lunch stuff or 1-day old stuff),” said Salik Saed. “I do it myself so I don’t see a problem, but I could see how it would be inappropriate for such a large system.”

When 20 students who regularly eat in Wilbur dining hall were asked to rate the overall healthiness of dining hall food on a scale from one to five with five being the healthiest, the mean response was 3.2. Most students agreed that while healthy options like salad and fresh fruits are available, less nutritious items like pizza and fried foods are just as abundant and usually more appealing. Many commented that they enjoyed eating in the dining halls, but noted that it required discipline.

“It’s not like there are a lot of unhealthy options, but it requires some discipline,” said Megan Grove. “I could eat pizza every day for lunch if I wanted to.”

Several students complained about the variety of food, noting that the food became old quickly.

“You can get sick of the same selection,” said Justin Solomon. “But it’s still edible.”

Restaurant Quality Service

While most students say that the quality of food is mediocre, most note that they are generally satisfied with the service. In a sample of 20 Wilbur students, Stanford Dining scored an average rating of 3.4 in quality and 4.4 in service on a five point scale.

“The dining hall staff does go out of their way to ensure that there are vegetarian and vegan options and to meet all of the students’ needs,” said freshman Amber Tariq.

Indeed, many students were hesitant to criticize the quality of dining hall food.

“They put so much effort into making it that it’s tough to complain too much,” said Solomon. “I mean it’s got to be hard serving so many kinds.”

Some Stanford chefs have owned their own restaurants or catering companies while others have just graduated from culinary school. Wilbur chef Frank Esser worked 12 hour days in the restaurant industry before coming to Stanford. He notes that the low-pressure environment is one of main reasons he prefers to work for Stanford Dining.

“It’s a lot more civilized and calm,” said Esser. “Chefs aren’t always screaming at each other.” According to Andrews, reputable chefs and industry leaders often approach Stanford Dining for employment opportunities because of its competitive wages and benefits and educational and training programs. Some chefs and workers, however, implied that the wages and benefits were only mediocre.

“[The best part of working for Stanford] are the staff and students,” said Wilbur chef Emerick Lewis. “The benefits are just okay.”

Eating Green?

Stanford Dining trumpets its resourceful and sustainable food practices. Thirty percent of produce comes from local vendors, and 95 percent of meat and dairy are locally sourced. Eggs are “cage-free,” and hamburgers are 100 percent grass fed.

According to Andrews, the dining hall staff relies on professional expertise, previous historical production reports and sophisticated menu management software to minimize waste. When chefs cannot recycle ingredients, Stanford Dining donates the food to SPOON to distribute to the needy.

“We keep [waste] to a minimum. Ingredients are never wasted,” said Andrews. “For example with a large can of kidney beans, half could be used in the salad bar and the other half goes into chili.”

But when students come late to meals in some dining halls, they often see workers throwing large trays of food into trash cans. Though the dining halls try to avoid waste by stopping cooking a half hour before meal periods end, this leaves many latecomers disgruntled by the lack of options. Some students also questioned whether in their efforts to be resourceful, the dining halls were being unhealthy. Several complained about sour milk and wilted lettuce. Some also mentioned moldy bell peppers and hard-boiled eggs in the salad bar.

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