« January 2008 Table of Contents
In the Kitchen: Sustainability 101
Toong brings seafood back to UMass Amherst's dining halls
By Joan M. Lang
January 01, 2008
The college cafeteria isn't what it used to be. Instead of
one location with restrictive two-hour service periods, there
are dozens where staff and students can satisfy their appetites
at any hour. Instead of mystery meat, there is ethnic food,
pizza, grilled-to-order burgers, salad bars and theme menus.
And there is seafood beyond tuna salad.
University of Massachusetts Amherst is widely regarded as
the pacesetter of a new college movement to position
foodservice as both a marketing tool and a profit center. The
current generation of college students - children of the baby
boomers and generation X - has grown up with variety and
authenticity in their diets, from sushi to organic food. They
view the quality of student life and amenities, not just
academics, as a deal breaker in making a school selection.
That's why college ranking tools like the Princeton Review
include categories like "Best Campus Food."
UMass Amherst ranks right up there. Since Ken Toong became
director of dining services at the 25,000-student university in
1998, total sales have more than quadrupled, to $51 million a
There are four all-you-can-eat resident dining commons, each
with multiple points of service and a wide variety of menu
options, and retail operations number in the dozens. More than
13,200 students are on the dining plan, meaning that juniors
and seniors, who are not required to sign up, are being
voluntarily retained at Amherst's highest rate ever.
On a menu that stresses variety and quality, seafood
accounts for some 10 percent of menu choices, and about 8
percent of the food budget, at $700,000. Toong's immediate goal
is to boost fish to 15 percent of the menu mix, with $1 million
It's been a while since the seafood menu options focused on
items from the fryer. With at least one or two different
seafood choices on the menu in the dining commons, offerings
run to selections like Mexican-style tilapia Veracruz (in a
tomato-based sauce with olives), baked cod marinated with honey
and grilled or baked salmon.
"One of the reasons we offer seafood is because it is
healthier, especially now that we are offering more grilled,
baked and roasted preparations," notes Toong. "We used to serve
lots of fish and chips and fried-fish sandwiches, but that's
not what the students want today."
Students also want foods that are local and sustainable, and
for the past two years Toong and his staff have engaged in an
ambitious sourcing program to achieve that.
Fully 20 percent of the menu is now sourced locally and/or
sustainably, a figure Toong hopes to see at 25 percent next
year. But while students are very familiar with the concept of
sustainability of foods like vegetables and chicken,
sustainable seafood was less of a known entity when the dining
services department began following the Monterey Bay Aquarium's
Seafood Watch guidelines a year ago. UMass Amherst has also
made the commitment to using only domestic Gulf shrimp in its
Enter the first annual Wild Alaska Seafood Week, part of a
regular series of special events designed to provide variety
and expand students' horizons via opportunities to taste and
Wild Alaska Week, which took place Oct. 1 to 5 in all four
dining commons, was sponsored with the support of the Alaska
Seafood Marketing Institute. It features different preparations
of wild Alaska salmon, cod, halibut and scallops at both lunch
and dinner, as well as Alaska seafood trivia contests, an
information table in each commons featuring brochures and other
materials, and on-ice displays of fresh whole fish in each
location. The most popular preparations from the special event
menu become part of the college's regular menu cycle.
On two of the five days, chefs from local restaurants came
in to prepare their seafood specialties using Alaska seafood,
which will also become part of the UMass Amherst repertoire
The centerpiece of the event was a talk given by Randy Rice,
ASMI's seafood technical director, on seafood sustainability
Toong's production staff was brought up to speed with
ServSafe and other procedures to ensure the wholesomeness of
seafood, as well as cooking issues such as time and temperature
In the future, Toong plans to continue introducing students
to new species of sustainable seafood from the Seafood Watch
list, and to new preparations, in particular ethnic choices
that reflect the global nature of seafood consumption.
"We need to concentrate on seafood that we can buy for $5,
$6, $7 a pound. Because of our volume, we are able to buy
boneless wild salmon fillets for about $5.50 a pound," says
Toong purchases all of the seafood from North Coast Seafood
in Boston, which has assured the school that its seafood is
processed in Boston, rather than in China.
"Because we purchase such large amounts, this year we were
able to reach an agreement that when Alaska salmon is in
season, they will fillet and cut it for us in Boston," says
Toong. "We don't want it done in China because of the
By reducing portion sizes to 4 ounces from 6 ounces, Toong
is able to offset the relatively high cost of seafood and have
it work within the UMass business model.
"[The students] can always go back and get another serving,
but with a smaller portion there's less waste. When you work
with seafood, there is more of a challenge in controlling and
managing food costs, but the upside is more variety and
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,