Beyond the Serving Line

As the real world feasts on food issues, Kenyon ponders creative stir-fries, undependable fruit, and trends in collegiate dining.

We are what we eat. We think, therefore we are. Thus, what we think about food-our debates, desires, complaints, and brainstorms-says something about who we are, as individuals, as a community.

The logic may not be strictly kosher. But Kenyon has had food on its mind lately, in ways that reflect not only the multitude of food-related issues engaging American society but also a range of concerns peculiar to the insular, affluent, artificial society atop the hill in Gambier.

Here are some of the questions the College has been chewing on:

It's not surprising that the questions range so widely. Americans seem to be more aware of food than ever before. Food is a health issue, a lifestyle issue, an environmental issue, an economic issue, a scientific issue, a psychological issue, a moral issue. The news media are glutted with food-related stories: about competing diets, "miracle" nutrition supplements, "organic" certification and the rise of organic agribusiness, the biochemical basis of appetite and obesity, the latest ethnic food crazes, the prospect of lawsuits against the fast-food industry, parental uprisings against junk food in the schools, parental addiction to convenience foods at home. Not to mention hormones and antibiotics in beef. And recalls of tainted chicken. And world hunger.

Such issues rarely develop fully on most college campuses, sheltered communities relatively unburdened by real-world pressures and choices, where the food, prepared in army-sized quantities, is treated a bit like the weather: people can't do much about it, except to grumble.

The grumbles, however, increasingly reflect the food awareness of the larger society. At Kenyon, those grumbles-and plaudits, too-center on Gund, Peirce, and Dempsey, the College dining halls; and on the Aramark Corporation, the giant managed-services firm that runs food operations in venues ranging from stadiums, arenas, and major sporting events (including the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia), to city convention centers, to prisons, to more than three hundred colleges and universities in the United States, including Kenyon.

Kenyon Food Service Director John Darmstadt, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, is a thirty-five-year veteran of Aramark who started as a cook at the Choate School in Connecticut. During nine years at Southern Connecticut State University, he rose from assistant manager to food service director, then went on to director's posts at Clarkson University and the University of Virginia before coming to Kenyon in 1996.

Darmstadt has seen college food evolve from heavy stews and fried everything to dishes like orange thyme chicken, gnocchi Genovese, poached cod with dill sauce, and pierogi with caramelized onions. All of these items have been on the Kenyon menu. So are old standards like hamburgers, french fries, and macaroni and cheese, which remain very popular among students, Darmstadt says. And, despite what one might assume about the health-consciousness and upscale consumption habits of the College's students, they also go for corn dogs. (Darmstadt had banished them but brought them back by popular demand. "It blows my mind," he says. "The most nutritious part of that thing is the stick.")

Over the past three years, the food service has added more vegetarian and vegan offerings, partly in response to health and nutrition concerns generally, partly in response to a small but vocal group of vegans on campus. Thus, the dining halls occasionally feature dishes like Sweet and Sour Bean Curd and Unruly Tabouli.

The biggest change, however, and clearly the most popular one has been the addition of "Pan Geos," an Aramark brand of food experience (it even has its own artsy logo) that combines ethnic flavors ("pan geos" evokes the Greek for "across the world"), a vegetarian slant, and the appeal of food that is freshly cooked to your specifications while you wait. The food service has two "Pan Geos" stations, one in Upper Dempsey that is open for dinner every night, the other in Gund, open Monday through Thursday for dinner and Friday for lunch.

Now in their third year, the stations are out in the dining areas, away from the regular serving line, and feature mainly stir-fries, wraps, and salads-items with names like American Heritage Pilaf (shallots, leeks, tomatoes, black beans, white rice, wheatberries, sour cream, and lime, stir-fried and served over flat bread). The cooks stand before their skillets or butcher-block surfaces, surrounded by ingredients, and students can tell them to leave out the sour cream or ask for a bit more rice.

The regular dining-hall menu remains, well, the regular menu, with several entrée choices every meal along with a salad bar, a pasta bar, varying side-dishes, and an assortment of desserts. AA few years ago, we put together a menu based on student likes and dislikes," says Darmstadt. "It's evolved into a four-week rotation." If students are wondering when chicken parmigiana will appear again-and the chicken parmigiana is reportedly a huge hit-they can count on it in a month, at latest. Hamburgers come up twice in the four-week cycle. "On those days," says Darmstadt, "that's all they eat."

That's not to say that the schedule is inflexible. Darmstadt meets every week with the managers and supervisors of Peirce and Gund, along with the chef, to see "what's working and what isn't," he says. "We keep records of everything we serve and make adjustments based on what we run out of and what gets left over."

Darmstadt also has a weekly meeting with Cheryl Steele, associate dean of students and the student affairs division liaison to the food service, and Frederick Linger, the manager of business services. He issues a student survey every semester, reads the comment cards that students can fill out any time, and solicits opinions in an all-student e-mail newsletter called "Notes from Food World," an often humorous compendium of announcements, reminders, and wry observations.

"John's great," says James Lewis '04, who, as the liaison to Aramark for the student life committee of Student Council, periodically gathers students to meet with Darmstadt. "If we ask for a change and it's in his power to change it, he tries to do it. The managers of Gund and Peirce are incredibly cooperative, too. You can tell they really want to satisfy the student body."

That doesn't mean they always succeed. Students complain about both quality and variety, according to Lewis. "I understand we're on a cycle," he says, "but more could be done within the cycle. We get the same things again and again." The vegetarians and vegans are particularly critical. "The vegans say, 'All we get are beans and rice.'"

Fruit is a sore point, with many students saying that it's often not ripe, or overripe, or bruised, or simply bad. "Sometimes they have good fruit, and sometimes there's none," says Kelly Gallagher '03 , the vice president for student life in Student Council. "When you walk in, it's hard to tell what there's going to be."

Darmstadt admits that the fruit is "hit or miss" but says that an Aramark contract obligates him to buy his fruit-and almost everything else-from Sysco, a national food distributor. "Sysco's Cleveland distribution center serves Kenyon," Darmstadt says. "They don't do a particularly good job with produce."

As for variety, Darmstadt will entertain almost any suggestion. He promises that next semester he'll experiment with more vegetarian and vegan options. He also hopes to make some cosmetic changes that will "help the atmosphere" for example, replacing some of the metal vats in the serving line with home-style platters or even individual casserole dishes.

To some extent, his challenge is to satisfy the tastes of more than fifteen hundred highly individualistic, demanding, and articulate customers. "The students' tastes are sophisticated," says Cheryl Steele. "In general, they've eaten out a lot. They always have high expectations. They're very hard to satisfy. I wouldn't want to cook for them."

At his meetings with students, Darmstadt is likely to hear dozens of specific, and sometimes contradictory, suggestions and questions. More yogurt. When are chicken nuggets coming back? The salad dressings are too watery. The Teriyaki dressing is good. The crab cakes are great. No, they're disgusting. More variety in the salad bar. Did the cheese grits go away? Can we have soy milk? (It's available every day.) Can we have Krispy Kreme donuts? (We've tried; they won't distribute up here.) At one meeting last fall, a student, one of the few who actually wake up for breakfast, complained that the only hot food available in the morning is pancakes, waffles, eggs, biscuits, bacon, sausage patties, sausage links, and ham. "There has to be something more!" he said. Darmstadt laughed, spread his hands helplessly, and said, "Tell me."

Students needing special diets for medical reasons-diabetics, for example-work with both the health center and Darmstadt, who almost always can point out suitable meals from among the food service's daily offerings. He also has to ensure that there are adequate choices for students who suffer from various food allergies. It can be a sensitive issue. Last year, in the interest of variety, a dining-hall worker threw nuts into a cookie recipe that normally didn't have them, and a student who was allergic to nuts suffered a serious reaction. As a result, Aramark has banished nuts from its menu entirely.

That case raises the question of whether the special problems of a few should dictate policy for the majority. A more contentious case involves student requests, made repeatedly over the past year, for nutrition labels in the food line. "Some people are concerned about fat and cholesterol," says Gallagher. "It's important to know what's in the food." The health center has opposed labels on the grounds that they would increase emotional pressures on students suffering from eating disorders.

"It's an ongoing tug of war," says Steele. She wonders whether the College is really serving the afflicted students well by protecting them from information on calories and fat. "Out in the world, they will have to deal with food information, right in front of them." Steele plans to satisfy the majority this semester, but with a compromise: rather than post labels, Aramark will make available, in the dining halls, the corporate book that details the nutritional elements of its recipes.

A less tractable problem-because its solution would involve staffing and money-has to do with the dining halls' hours of operation. One might argue that they're already generous. In addition to periods in both Peirce and Gund for breakfast, a later continental breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Peirce offers "Extendo," an afternoon stretch (1:15 to 4:45 p.m.) during which students can wander in to get snacks and light meals like omelets, sandwiches, and cereal.

What students really need, though, is an "Extendo" at night, says Gallagher. After 7:30, when dinner ends in Peirce, the only food oasis in Gambier is the bookstore, which closes at 11:00-that is, just when students are buckling down to work, or taking a break from work, or working hard at procrastinating, and want a caloric lift. "Lots of students order pizza," Gallagher says. "I'm sure Papa John's is making a fortune off us."

Those with cars hit the Coshocton Avenue strip. "I'll go out to Taco Bell at 1:00 in the morning," says Lewis. "When Taco Bell becomes your safe haven, that's a problem."

The ample daytime hours of the dining halls go hand in hand with Kenyon's unusual, and perhaps unique, open-access arrangement. Basically, instead of having to check in at meals or swipe a card in a machine at a turnstile, students can come and go as they please. They can stop in, eat, leave, and, having run into some friends, come back in to eat some more. Then duck out. Duck back in to grab another bite. And do it again, and again.

"Students love how things are done here," says Lewis. "They love the freedom, that they can snack as often as they want. They love the informality. They feel that's what Kenyon is all about."

Their parents seem to love it, too. Members of the Parents Advisory Council, on campus for meetings last fall, peppered Acting President Ronald A. Sharp with questions about the food service and were not shy about criticizing the quality of the fare. But in private conversations, parents waxed lyrical about the home-like, comforting environment fostered by the open-access system.

In Darmstadt's view, however, that system is part of what makes Kenyon's food service antiquated. It prevents the College from offering a range of meal-plan options--for instance, a fourteen-meal-per-week plan for those who never eat breakfast--because such options would require a control point and ID cards. Many if not most other colleges offer such options, and students here periodically ask for them, wondering why they should have to pay the full charge for board (currently $2,600) when they choose not to eat all the meals. They have a point, Darmstadt says, although he cautions that the cost for various options might not be significantly lower, because labor and overhead costs would remain more or less constant even if fewer students used the food service for all of their meals.

Kenyon is also yoked to the past by the size and layout of the kitchens and dining halls, Darmstadt feels. In addition to the kitchens and serving areas being cramped, the arrangement of space lends itself most readily to the traditional, cafeteria-style serving line. But the future has little room for the serving line. Colleges and universities with the most exciting food services today have abandoned or minimized bumper-to-bumper trays in favor of stations, like the Pan Geos stations, scattered throughout the dining halls.

Last fall, Darmstadt, Steele, Linger, and Douglas Zipp, the special assistant to the president for student facilities development, spent a day at the University of Cincinnati, which has transformed one of its dining halls into a kind of marketplace, with stations devoted to home cooking, deli creations, and the like. A similar transformation of, say, Gund or Upper Dempsey would require extensive refurbishing.

Meanwhile, another constituency on campus has a vision of food and the future that reaches beyond the dining halls toward the farms-and the fate-of Knox County. Combining academic study with community activism, a number of students have been exploring sociological perspectives on food while working to preserve area farms and farmland by expanding the outlets for locally produced commodities.

Perhaps the biggest inspiration for these efforts was the "Foodways" project of the College's Rural Life Center, directed by Howard Sacks, associate provost and professor of sociology. In 2000-01, Sacks devoted his year-long "fieldwork" course to food, using food-related activities as a vehicle for exploring how communities work. Through extensive interviewing as well as hands-on participation, students examined topics ranging from gardening, farming, and hunting, to cooking and preserving food, to grocery shopping and food economics, to ritual foods.

At the end of the year, they produced "Foodways," a series of articles in the Mount Vernon News, also collected in a book. But the experience also got several local farmers interested in students, and students in the farmers, with the result that in the fall of 2001 two seniors, Rebecca Chamberlin and Christopher Meyers, undertook independent studies with Sacks that involved internships on an organic farm near Gambier. This past fall, six additional students did similar internship-studies, working on three different farms and meeting regularly with three faculty advisors, E. Raymond Heithaus and M. Siobhan Fennessy of the biology department and Miriam Dean-Otting of the religious studies department.

Central to the students' interest is the issue of farmland preservation in a county where farms and green space have been disappearing in the face of accelerating development. While several local groups are involved in preservation efforts, seeking to use techniques such as the purchase of development rights, Sacks notes that "the cheapest way to keep the rural character and keep the land green is to keep farmers farming."

He and others would like to see the area develop a "local food network" connecting farmers with consumers, both directly and through area restaurants and food stores--and, yes, through institutional food services like Kenyon's. Sacks played a role in establishing a very successful farmers' market in downtown Mount Vernon, for example. And in 2000, the Rural Life Center published Homegrown, a guide to Knox County orchards, vegetable growers, meat producers, maple-syrup makers, and other food sources. (Sacks notes that a number of Kenyon employees farm on the side, selling products ranging from beef to syrup. He and his wife, Judy, raise sheep, selling lamb to colleagues every fall.)

After graduating last spring, Becky Chamberlin stayed on in Gambier, working at the Brown Family Environmental Center and pursuing the local-food issue. Having forged contacts with like-minded groups at Oberlin College and in Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University, she's working on a range of initiatives, including the idea of a "community kitchen" that could provide communal facilities for canning and food preservation, serve as a warehouse for local foods, and perhaps house a seasonal restaurant.

Sacks feels that Gambier could become a model, demonstrating on a small scale how communities could maximize their use of local foodstuffs. He acknowledges that logistical problems-contracts, transportation, liability-might prevent the College's dining halls from consistently using local foods, at least in the near future. But he thinks Kenyon could start small: with the Red Door Café, which is scheduled to change hands and for which the College has solicited suggestions from the campus community.

Perhaps the future of food at Kenyon has room for local flavor. Becky Chamberlin whetted some appetites one evening last September, when she went to Peirce and gave out tomatoes from the environmental center's organic vegetable garden. "We wanted to show people how much better tomatoes could be, we wanted them to see what fresh food tastes like."

She didn't put much of a dent in the crowd at the Pan Geos station. But, in a small way, she did what the new stir-fries and wraps are doing as well: in a world where hamburgers still rule, she expanded the sense of what's possible.

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