Demanding Times

09 February 2006
Demanding Times

Much more is being asked of noncommercial foodservice, and operators are answering.

This article first appeared in the 1 January 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Jamie Popp, Senior Editor

Like many of the patients, staff and guests at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Gary Lane appreciates fried catfish. But as the facility's executive chef, it is his responsibility to provide nutritionally balanced meals; that means broiled or grilled fish is offered more often than fried. Making menus more healthful didn't happen without resistance, Lane says. Some patients had high-calorie foods smuggled in by family and friends while employees grumbled.

Lane held his ground. "You can get as much flavor and satisfaction from healthful foods as you can from fast-food-style meals," he says.

Providing foods that are both nutritious and appealing is a constant challenge for school, college and healthcare foodservice staffs. It is a responsibility that doesn't end, but one that can increase in complexity as has happened over the past few years. Schools are more tightly accountable for what they serve; colleges, universities and corporate-feeding operations are expected to meet higher standards in food quality and variety as well as in atmosphere; healthcare must stretch budgets still further to raise quality perceptions for food and services.

Noncommercial foodservice is held to a higher nutrition standard than are restaurants: R&I's Obesity in America study finds that 85% of adults say schools have "a great deal" of responsibility for serving nutritionally balanced meals, while only 29% say restaurants bear that much responsibility. Given that popular perception, many noncommercial foodservice operators and contractors have made substantive changes in what is made available.

Some of the change has come through setting new requirements for what foods and beverages can be purchased from vending machines during school hours. The impact of policies set in 2005 will be felt this year: The 435,000-student Chicago Public Schools system, for example, says its decision to ban vended carbonated soft drinks in favor of water, fruit juice or sports drinks means nearly $2.9 million in lost annual income.

Students at Seattle's Ballard High School were surprised last fall to find that activity-card fees had doubled to $50 in order to make up for lost revenue from vended snack and beverages. Similar scenarios are playing out across the country as school administrators and foodservice directors face budget shortfalls that often are a cost of healthful eating.

Many corporate-foodservice and healthcare operations are making similar shifts in vending policies. Philadelphia-based contractor Aramark this year will be expanding its Just4U for Vending program to additional employee-feeding clients, and Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho USA's Wellness & You, On The Go healthful-vending program will be put in place with additional healthcare contracts.

Demanding Clientele

Raised in an era of heightened nutrition awareness and residing in environments that promote self-expression, college and university students are vocal about what they want to eat. Four out of 10 students describe themselves as "concerned about health and nutrition," according to Aramark's DiningStyles Research, a 2004 survey of 80,000 students on 250 campuses.

Students are free to define their own dining styles once they're beyond the watchful eye of parents. Burgers, fries and pizza are top sellers in campus food courts but students do watch what they eat, says Gene Kellogg, president of Environment Culinary Service Consulting Group in Carrollton, Texas.

Fat ranks high among college dieters' concerns, prompting them to seek low-fat, "good-for-you" desserts, say 38% of Aramark's survey respondents. Also of interest are entrées that use leaner meats or lighter sauces (44%) and meals with low-fat products and ingredients (38%). Additionally, half the students polled say they want sides that aren't fried.

Convenience and price also are important considerations that students ask foodservice to accommodate. More than 60% of students tell Aramark that time constraints and busy lifestyles are the prime determinants of their eating and ordering behavior, and 31% say price is their top consideration. In other words, they want nutritious food available when they want it, where they want it and at prices their limited finances can afford.

Oh, and one more thing: They'd like an appealing dining atmosphere as well. According to Aramark, 21% of collegiate diners see meals as entertainment and social events.

"Food is important [to 18-to-24-year-olds] but atmosphere and style are just as important and enhance their food experience," says Vicki Dunn, Sodexho USA senior director of marketing.

Vegetarian, or meatless, and vegan (no meat, fish, poultry or other animal-derived products) lifestyles play to collegiate diners' penchant for experimentation and being healthy. Chicago-based researcher Mintel International finds that vegetarianism and veganism are most prevalent among 18-to-24-year-olds (6%). After graduation, adherence to vegetarian/vegan diets ebbs: Mintel finds that only 3% of consumers aged 25 to 34 describe themselves as strict adherents.

Even if they are not dedicated vegans, many college students want nonmeat options. Nearly one-quarter of more than 100,000 college students surveyed by Aramark say availability of vegan meal choices is important to them.

Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., has vegetarian menu options such as vegetable sandwiches or wraps at six campus dining locations. The campus dining service also recognizes three vegetarian diet variations (for those who eat eggs or dairy products or occasionally meat) and produces vegan burgers.

Sustained Interest

Sodexho's Dunn says student interest in organic and sustainable-agriculture foods is gaining momentum in college dining. The contractor has introduced organic meals to many campus accounts, including Colby College, Waterville, Maine, where locally grown foods and sustainable-fishery products have been introduced. Sodexho has introduced a menu of locally grown foods and a farmers market at Delaware Valley College, Doylestown Pa.

Independent dining services also heed sustainable and organic eating trends. Yale University, New Haven, Conn. has a locally grown, seasonal and organic menu that is part of its Sustainable Food Project featuring organic pizzas and grass-fed burgers.

Dunn also sees a shift to more at-home/in-dorm meal preparation in this demographic. "The average student will prepare more than eight meals per week that are semi-homemade because of wellness concerns," she says.

Killer Cereal

Looking for a way to build sales during slow afternoon time slots? Try cereal.

Chicago-based Cereality offers 30 cereal choices and 45 toppings. Its first unit opened in 2003 as a kiosk at Arizona State University in Tempe. A second campus location is at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and retail locations are open in Chicago and on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

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