Courtesy of Mark H. Anbinder

May 6, 2016

Cornell Employees, Students Evaluate Grab-n-Go Foods

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If you have ever grabbed a chilled food item from an eatery on campus, it most likely had a Freshtake Grab-n-Go label with the phrase, “Prepared Daily by Cornell Dining” emblazoned on its packaging.

A specific set of Cornell Dining employees go to the Robert Purcell Marketplace Eatery commissary every morning at approximately 4 a.m. to prepare foods that will end up on North, West and Central Campus eateries later that day, according to Karen Brown, director of Campus Life Marketing and Communications.

Chef Steven Miller, who oversees the production process, explained that Freshtake employees do not work in other dining halls or work at other times.

By noon, the Freshtake products have been transported to all campus eateries and are sold with the Freshtake seal, according to Miller. A wrap prepared in the morning could end up one floor below, at Bear Necessities Grill and C-Store, or at an eatery across campus.

Cornell Dining specifically orders ingredients in bulk to be used for Freshtake foods. True to its name, no Freshtake item stays in an eatery’s refrigerator for more than 48 hours, according to Miller.

“When you eat grilled chicken in a wrap or a salad, that chicken was cooked by a dining employee the night before and delivered that day,” Miller said.

Miller said Freshtake employees are “very skilled” at cooking on a large scale. In a typical day, 2,000 to 2,200 foodstuffs are cooked, packaged and delivered.

He also said that the Cornell Dining employees who make Freshtake products cater major university events, some of which are on an even larger scale than cooking a day’s worth of food for all Cornell Dining eateries.

“[The employees] prepared 5,000 fried chicken lunches for President Elizabeth Garrett’s inauguration,” Miller said. “Each lunch had fried chicken, coleslaw and cornbread. It took 20 minutes to serve 5,000 people on the quad. All of the lunches were kept right around 34 degrees, so there was never any risk of foodborne illness.”

Miller added that Cornell Dining varies Freshtake foods based on the time of year to “try to stay seasonal.”

“From spring break through fall break, we have lighter foods,” he said. “In the winter, you need heavier food to have enough energy to get up that slope. But there are some foods we can never take away, even temporarily. The Asian Glazed Chicken Salad, the Chicken Caesar Wrap. They’re too popular.”

Cornell Dining takes into account the community’s preferences when deciding what Freshtake foods to continue selling, according to Brown.

“We shift what’s produced and distributed around campus depending on what people are eating and thus, what our unit managers order,” Brown said.

Brown added that last month, Freshtake made one of its vegetarian salads fully vegan based on community feedback.

“The Southwestern Tofu Salad is no longer topped with cheese,” she said.

Although most students probably haven’t thought about the matter, Miller said Freshtake considers its environmental impact when creating its packaging.

“We found out that people were putting the compostable containers in with their garbage, so we decided to switch to plastic, because it gets sent to recycling and it’s sorted,” Miller said.

Freshtake started in 2003 as an effort to standardize the different packaged food products sold on campus.

“If you got a food item from Willard Straight Hall, [back then] it would have a label that said Willard Straight Hall on it,” Miller said. “Each location had their own.”

Around that time, a consultant gave Cornell Dining detailed information about how to more efficiently sell premade foods on campus, Miller said. Freshtake products were soon introduced and have since filled what could otherwise have been a gap in Cornellians’ diets.

“We want to be sure everyone can enjoy a healthful and satisfying meal even if they don’t have time to wait for a dish to be prepared to order,” Brown said. “We know there’s demand for snacks that are a step above a bag of chips or candy bar from the vending machines.”

However, students vary in their opinions of Freshtake. Thomas Musca ’19 called the food “generally overpriced and underwhelming” and described the taste as “anemic.”

Angel Ding ’18 said she only eats Freshtake as “a last resort.”

“Other options are healthier and better tasting,” she said.

Melis Schildkraut ’17 added that she only eats it when it’s “free, expired and about to be thrown away.”

Tanvir Dhami ’18 said the amount of calories in Freshtake foods was concerning for some students.

“Just the other day I went to grab an egg salad sandwich on wheat and it had about 800 calories … all of the sandwiches have similarly insanely high caloric contents,” Dhami said.

Still, there are students who said they enjoy Freshtake foods.

“I eat it more for convenience, but it’s still pretty good,” Natasha Sinha ’18 said. “It tastes really fresh — I’ve never once thought that the bread was stale or the meat was gross and old.”

In response to students’ unfavorable opinions, Mark Anbinder, web communications manager, campus life, defended Freshtake’s quality and pricing.

“We realize not everyone loves each of our Freshtake items and we realize not everyone wants to splurge on some of the pricier items,” Anbinder said. “But we quite intentionally provide a variety of snack-sized and meal-sized items at a range of prices so that our students and staff and others dining on campus can make their own choices, such as a chef salad made with inexpensive cold cuts versus a salad topped with a piece of grilled salmon. One of those is understandably going to be quite a bit more expensive.”

Anbinder explained that the way the foods are made determines Freshtake’s pricing.

“We’re starting with the best fresh ingredients we can and making meals from scratch every day, and we’re paying staff members well over minimum wage,” Anbinder said. “Those are just a couple of the factors that go into our pricing decisions.”

As for the quality and taste of the foods, Anbinder said Cornell Dining listens to feedback and makes changes accordingly.