Jennie Li / Sun File Photo

A Cornell Dining chef stands in Risley Dining Hall.

February 19, 2019

From Swipe to Table, Cornell Dining Aims to Offer Healthier Menus

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Cornellians might be quick to share derisive Okenshields memes, but behind Cornell Dining’s offerings are a slew of careful decisions designed to ensure nutritious and healthy options, according to Michele Lefebvre, Cornell Dining’s director of nutrition management.

Princeton Review currently ranks Cornell fourth for “Best Campus Food,” and a team of Cornell Dining chefs recently won gold at the American Culinary Federation Competition. In the 2018 Allergy Awards, Dining won “Best Overall Food Allergy Program.”

“A lot campuses or large-scale food services … are operating off of one menu. So everyone’s following the same recipe,” Lefebvre told The Sun. “We don’t, and that’s what makes us score high on the Princeton Review. It’s really a gentle balance.”

Cornell Dining bases its food values on the nutritional guidelines set by Menus of Change, a collaborative initiative between the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health that aims to promote healthier practices in the dining industry.

The goal of the initiative was to “bring the awareness of health and sustainability to their menus,” according to Lefebvre.

Since joining Menus of Change in 2015, Cornell Dining has focused on honing in on a new aspect of the program’s guidelines each year.

Last year, Lefebvre and her team focused on using “cleaner” ingredients. They targeted processed meats like deli cuts, pepperoni and bacon, switching to new brands that emphasized products free of artificial ingredients and prepared with minimal processing.

“There’s no nitrates added except those that are naturally occurring and no preservatives or artificial ingredients,” she said. “Your pepperoni is actually a clean pepperoni when you’re eating it.”

In an effort to incorporate healthier content into meals, Lefebvre has also overseen a number of initiatives that aim to deemphasize meat without compromising taste.

“We’re always striving to make something plant-based,” she said. “So, for example, if we can make a soup kind of base using pureed cauliflower, we definitely aim to try and do that.”

Cornell Dining currently collaborates with the Blended Burger project to serve patties with 30 percent less beef — that meat is partially replaced with ground-up mushrooms. The mixed burger is served at several locations on campus, including Risley, the Ivy Room and Robert Purcell Community Center.

“Instead of just being completely plant-based, we just up the veggies. We’re increasing the amount of plant and decreasing the amount of [meat],” she said. “That’s kind of been our stealth way of approaching it.”

For its vegetarian-friendly approach, Cornell Dining earned a score of 91 percent student satisfaction on PETA’s vegan report card.

For students looking to make healthier choices when eating at a Cornell Dining facility, Lefebvre recommends “going shopping.”

“Instead of going to each station and taking everything or anything that looks good, do a quick shop around the entire place to see what really speaks to you,” she said. “That’s a great way of keeping portions under control and also a great way to reduce waste for those who care about sustainability and health as a planet.”

Students interested in learning about the nutritional value of their “grab-n-go” items can check online using Cornell’s NetNutrition, which includes detailed information on nutritional facts, ingredients and allergens.

“We’re always trying to get people to use NetNutrition. Every time we bring up NetNutrition, people don’t know about it,” Lefebvre said.

The database, however, does not detail nutritional or caloric facts for food served in swipe-in dining halls, because, according to Lefebvre, fresh-made food is difficult to evaluate across all 10 dining facilities.

“It’s a constant question that we ask ourselves,” Lefebvre said regarding whether there were plans to roll out NetNutrition to dining halls. “Cornell Dining is very culinary-forward and more unique than a lot of other campuses.”