“There is a definite shift in the culture as students and others are becoming more health-conscious consumers who favor foods without synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or hormones,” said Jackie Baldwin, executive chef with Sodexo Hospitality Services. “Today’s students want more variety, so we are constantly working to create foods and new menus that are eclectic in order to keep the student’s dining experience fresh and exciting,” Baldwin added.
Already, the Sodexo team has developed more than 100 recipes for the Rensselaer campus. Sample items range from student all-time favorites such as chicken parmigiana, chicken tenders, and buffalo chicken wraps, to authentic Thai, Pan-Asian, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, and Mexican menus, organic soups, vegetarian and vegan entrees, gluten-free dishes, and many more.
Baldwin is an avid supporter of buying local. She notes that local farms need community support to stay in business, and this effort also helps to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, which over time has an impact on the environment.
According to the Organic Trade Association, the allure and taste for organic products is on the rise. Organic sales in the United States reached $24.6 billion in sales in 2008. Organic food is the largest segment of organic products, totaling $22.9 billion in sales and accounting for 93 percent of all organic product sales.
“There are challenges that we encounter in this process. We can’t consistently offer the same meal, as supply does not equal demand,” says Baldwin. “We have to use a combination of local and organic foods based on the growing seasons and the selection of meats, produce, fruits, and vegetables that are available.”
A team of civic-minded Rensselaer students can be credited with bringing local and organic foods from the farm to the campus to please the palates of socially conscious students, faculty, and staff. Launched in fall 2007, Terra Cafe dishes up a selection of local and organic meals, desserts, and beverages every Wednesday afternoon in the Russell Sage Dining Hall. A recent week’s menu featured Thai curry chicken or tofu, braised cabbage, basam rice, and a choice of fair trade organic coffee, Divinitea ice tea, or Gould’s apple cider.
Of course, the perfect meal always needs a sweet ending, and one of Rensselaer’s best-kept secrets is the Bake Shop, located in the basement of the Commons Dining Hall. On any given day, Debbie Brown, shop supervisor, and her staff of five are elbow-deep in flour, sugar, organic fruits, and the many ingredients needed to bake a plethora of sweets for campus dining halls, special events, and food shows.
Beyond meal planning, Baldwin and David Gaul, marketing director for Sodexo, also have been working to explore and implement new sustainable methods and technologies to make the dining experience more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Rensselaer is the first college in the Northeast to use iMYE, an innovative dining option that offers a restaurant-style approach allowing students to preview and select menu choices via a touch-screen kiosk system. Located in the Howard N. Blitman, P.E. ’50 Residence Commons dining hall, students have the opportunity to select from 38 chef-created signature dishes and made-to-order meals. The facility also operates a trayless dining service, helping to minimize waste as well as water and energy usage while creating a more sustainable food service.
Additional initiatives to support sustainable dining include the use of 100 percent post-consumer napkins, sustainable packaging and recycling options, and the use of new ware-washing sanitizing solutions that are environmentally friendly.
“While student’s expectations have changed as it relates to dining, we also realize that we need to find ways to adopt new methods related to how we serve and the products that are used,” said Gaul. “We are committed to sustainability and improving the quality of life for the campus community, so we always looking for new ways to protect and restore the environment.”
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