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Supporting Students Needs

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While student input is important, these days market research is not limited to slips of paper dropped into comment boxes. Today, “psychographic” data is often used to study eating habits and preferences. For example, Sodexho has a program called “lifestyling,” where they use zip codes to do a study of people’s habits. Clusters reveal a great deal about how people spend their time and what they like. They determine, for example, how many eaters stick to meat and potatoes or how many are open to trying sushi or fried tofu. Rensselaer is also engaged in “mapping,” collecting data based on foot traffic in venues throughout the campus at different hours of the day.

With students from more than 60 countries, Rensselaer must take into consideration diverse food traditions, religious requirements, and dietary needs. The population of international students, which began rising a decade ago, now accounts for 4.1 percent of undergraduates and 55 percent of graduate students.

Two years ago, Sodexo launched a customer-friendly special diet program into the meal plan with “myZone.” The program targets students and others on campus with sensitivities/allergies to anything from gluten and dairy to tree nuts and seafood.

“Dealing with students’ severe food allergies or sensitivities is a particular challenge for every campus because the smallest misstep can have serious consequences,” said John Fusco, regional district manager for Sodexo. “In the college environment, some students with such conditions often make their own accommodations outside the meal plan, which may lead some to petition for an exemption. We wanted to create a ‘safe space’ within the residential dining facility so that students with special dietary restrictions could prepare their own meals without the risk of contamination and without feeling isolated or separated from their peers.”

The space — located in an alcove in the Commons Dining Hall — has become a selling point for students touring the Rensselaer campus, as well as an incentive for those with special dietary needs to participate in Rensselaer’s meal plan. In the first year, voluntary meal plan retention increased in part due to the concept, Fusco noted.

Rensselaer’s dining hall staff maintain myZone, which is stocked with fresh and frozen meals, sides, desserts, snacks, dry groceries, beverages, and more. Students may also get a taste of fresh-made products from Rensselaer’s own bakeshop, including items such as wheat- and gluten-free baked goods. All products are marked with nutritional and allergen information. In addition to allergies and food intolerances, the program also accommodates religious dietary restrictions. For example, kosher and halal products are kept in separate countertop refrigerators and even have their own grills, Baldwin noted.

“Our goal in creating myZone is to please students’ palates and create an enjoyable dining experience,” Baldwin said. “Our chefs make daily meals for the special-diet students, who are also free to go into the kitchen and ask for something to be prepared. It’s really important to me that we work with students to accommodate their needs and make them part of the community, especially when it comes to dining. Eating should always be fun.”

Along with the burgeoning dining options comes an increased interest in healthy and flavorful eating — a perennial challenge for college students who can tend to eat on the run and live on fast food and coffee. Today, nutrition counselors are available to advise students. Also, to encourage exercise, at various times, Sodexo has given every first-year student a pedometer he or she can use to factor daily walking into dietary plans. Meanwhile, campus chefs are happy to try out a student’s favorite recipe.

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Order Up! – Sustainable Dining Options Increase at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 < >
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green@rensselaer is a new series of articles, blog entries, podcasts, and videos highlighting issues and topics related to sustainability, energy, and the environment. The series will examine the research, student initiatives, administrative efforts, and individuals at Rensselaer who are striving in different ways toward the shared goal of reducing society’s impact on the environment.
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