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In the Kitchen: Sustainability 101

Toong brings seafood back to UMass Amherst's dining halls

Seafood represents 10 percent of the menu at UMass
    Amherst. - Photo courtesy of UMass Amherst
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 year.

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 in purchases.

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 operations.

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 learn.

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 moving forward.

The centerpiece of the event was a talk given by Randy Rice, ASMI's seafood technical director, on seafood sustainability and nutrition.

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 control.

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.

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 food-safety issues."

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 customer satisfaction."


Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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