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Let’s go strawberry picking: changes in dining menus

March 29, 2019

Forgive me Thorne Food Waste Owl, for I have sinned: most mornings, I pick the strawberries out of the fruit salad bowl. I’m not the only culprit; most people don’t want pineapple on their oatmeal or in their cereal, so they carefully collect slices of strawberries from the top of the fruit salad instead.

But a month ago the mixed fruit salad disappeared, and with it went my guilty conscience. Now, melons, strawberries and pineapples are placed in different containers, and I feel less selfish as I ladle strawberries onto my oatmeal. This change, like many others in the dining halls, was made in an effort to reduce food waste and came about thanks to the creativity of Bowdoin chefs and students.

Bowdoin Dining uses menu management software to track production and usage of menu items to minimize excess food production and waste. Breakfast fruit salad food waste used to be at 20 percent, Mary McAteer Kennedy, executive director of dining and bookstore services, told me. While official data has not been collected since the change, most dining employees agree that plates on the dish line have less extra melon and pineapple, and sourcing managers are beginning to purchase fruit at more efficient quantities.

You can thank the Student Dining Committee for the deconstructed fruit salad phenomenon. Students on the committee meet with Kennedy and other tenured staff in Bowdoin Dining to propose and discuss change. Along with Nate DeMoranville ’20, chair of facilities and sustainability for Bowdoin Student Government, Kennedy runs the group, which is larger than usual this semester, consisting of 16 students.

“Almost everything that we’ve done … is because of students. Bowdoin students don’t dictate change; they discuss change,” Kennedy said. “The students have been just wonderful about making suggestions, and they’re always thoughtful suggestions and ideas. I think that’s why I’ve loved it here; this is more like a partnership.”

Other initiatives encourage student participation in menu creation, such as Just Like Home Night, which features recipes submitted by students. Some of these dishes, along with recipes from students’ time abroad, have entered Moulton and Thorne’s regular meal rotations.

“Our students here travel a lot. So there are some ideas that students will share when they come back from traveling, which is fun,” Kennedy told me as she excitedly bragged about David Crooker, production manager and head chef at Moulton, who travels every year and brings back many new dishes to test in the dining halls.

As the primary consumers of Bowdoin Dining dishes, students greatly affect the menus—through the Committee, comment cards and their eating habits more generally—but chef creativity, such as that of Crooker, is needed as well. Despite health trends increasing over the past few decades, the entree salad did not become a staple in Thorne until 2015, when Assistant Chef Anita Erickson-York entered the salad room.

Erickson-York started working in Jack Magee’s Pub and Grill in 2002, then worked as a line cook in Thorne in 2005 and, most recently in 2015, moved into the salad room. Her entree salads have moved foot traffic from the hot line to the salad bar, causing longer lines by the vegetables instead of the fries—a change that brings a sly smile to her face daily.

“When I was in the kitchen cooking, everybody had their turns making meals because we cook to order in the kitchen; it’s not made way ahead of time. So I thought, ‘why don’t we do something like that in the salad room?’” explained Erickson-York. “Why don’t we make salads that could have meats on them or whatever else the cook wanted; salads that we make as we go. And so what started out to be this little small thing turned out to be 700-plus salads a week.”

Every day for lunch and dinner, Thorne serves two entree salads: a tossed salad and an additional impromptu salad that is “made up on the fly” using leftover ingredients. The imagination needed for these daily concoctions did not come overnight; Erickson-York spent her first two years in the salad room looking for new recipes, researching online and constantly devouring cookbooks.

“[Salads] allow anybody to be creative,” she said. “In order to be that creative and create new recipes, I spend a lot of time googling. I google everything: What if anybody had thought about making something like this? Or like that? Or I might like to combine two together and see if it works out.”

Erickson-York and other cooks in the salad room repurpose proteins, such as teriyaki chicken or blueberry tempeh, creating new, impromptu dishes and avoiding food waste. Some days, chefs decide what salad to serve based simply off of available salad dressings, all of which are made on campus in the dining halls.

The entree salad rotation now includes over 120 different salads, which are on a seasonal cycle depending on what vegetables are locally available. While the classic Caesar salad is one of Thorne’s most popular plant-based dishes, Erickson-York hopes that through more innovative entree salads, students realize “what you can actually do with a salad instead of just piling raw vegetables on top.”

Much like the impromptu salads, Thorne breakfast now includes roasted vegetables to add to your morning eggs, a clever repurposing of leftovers from the previous day’s salad bar that satisfies the ever-increasing pool of veggie lovers.

But Super Snacks is the epitome of this food recycling phenomenon.

“We don’t write a menu for Supers; it’s what’s available,” said Kennedy. “Just like at home, whatever is in your refrigerator is what you’re going to use and it really helps us to keep the inventory down and keep from wasting it.”

Changes in the dining halls come about thanks to student and chef creativity, but they can become complicated orchestrations. Bowdoin Dining staff must consider seasonal availability of produce, various student dietary restrictions and the need to scale up recipes to serve nearly 2,000 people. But every dining employee I talked to encouraged me, and all other students, to submit comment cards frequently.

I offered Erickson-York a few suggestions, while bemoaning the loss of Thorne’s falafel salad, which made a brief appearance in the spring of 2017.

“If you all stop picking the falafel balls off the top, we’ll make that one again,” she promised me. “We make everything from scratch, so the amount of falafel balls we had to make was ridiculous, and we retired that salad.”

And so returns the guilt of a picky eater.

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