Laura Honeycutt spends most of her waking hours with college kids as part of her very grown-up responsibilities as departmental dietitian for the University of Maine.
Honeycutt, who began working at the university in 1999, has seen the school’s foodservice department evolve from four traditional dining halls, two convenience stores, some catering facilities and a student union into a larger operation featuring pubs, cafes, restaurants and a marketplace as well as the traditional dining halls still found on campus. Revenues are about $15 million annually.
More than the operation has changed, however, Honeycutt said. Not only are college-age customers increasingly fickle, but also many are suffering from food allergies and eating disorders, forcing the nutritionist and her staff to stay on their game.
What health and wellness trends currently are taking hold among students?
When I first got here, kids weren’t even talking about it. Then everyone went low-carbohydrate and now they’re really interested in trans fat. That’s the buzz, and so are whole grains. Also, energy drinks are really big. They all want more energy. Overall, wellness and health are so much more in demand. These kids want things that will satisfy their need for that.
How has college foodservice changed since you started your career?
I’ve been here for eight years, and I would say that since 1999 when I started, there’s been much more of a focus on health and wellness.
Also, customers are more demanding. They definitely want more flexibility in their meal plans and want us to be socially responsible. They demand more service and are much more interested in the whole local, sustainable, fair-trade thing. Those issues have really come to the forefront.
What differences have you noticed in the traditional dining-hall setup?
One big shift is they want to be on the go rather than sit in the dining hall and socialize. There’s much more of a demand for grab-and-go items, and we also have to compete more with local markets, like our local restaurants, pizza places and fast-food shops. It’s a different lifestyle the way college kids live now, and we have to change the way we do business in order to meet their needs.
So what are you doing to meet those needs?AT A GLANCE
Title: departmental dietitian, University of Maine
Career highlights: being recognized for the best National Nutrition Month promotion by the National Association of College and University Food Services in 2005; serving on the board of directors of the Maine Dietetics Association and the Maine Nutrition Council; serving as chair of NACUFS’ nutrition committee
Hometown: Glenburn, Maine
Education: bachelor’s degrees from the University of Maine in plant and soil sciences and food science and nutrition; master’s degree in food science and nutrition, also from the University of Maine
We have two major renovations happening at the same time to create an environment today’s students want. We’re giving them more display cooking, more freshness. One of our buildings, which is under construction right now, is going to be LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified, environmentally correct. We’re also going to offer more á la carte than full-service meals. We’re doing a combination of all you care to eat and á la carte in order to meet all needs. The athletes need all-you-can-eat, but there are also smaller eaters who want salads and such that they can eat on the run.
What’s the most striking thing you’ve noticed from a health standpoint?
It’s probably the increase in celiac disease [a digestive condition triggered by gluten]. More physicians are recognizing and diagnosing it. In the first two years I worked here there weren’t any cases. But this summer we’ve done a sports camp for children—they eat here—and we’ve already had four cases. We’re really having to change our philosophy about how we handle celiac and how we accommodate it in our facilities because it’s become so prevalent.
What are some of the things you’re implementing to deal with it?
Staff training is one thing, and we’re also bringing in some of the basic foods that can accommodate the diet, like gluten-free bread and gluten-free breakfast cereal. We have organic brown rice on the menu for lunch and dinner every day so the staff doesn’t have to prepare special orders of it. And let’s say there’s fish with breading on it, I’ll have the staff prepare the fish without the breading on it for [the celiac students]. They’re really good about doing things like that.
I also do a support group for them, but not all of the kids come forward. Last year there were maybe 10. What was really nice last fall was we had a focus group where we invited all the celiac kids and we prepared everything gluten-free, including pies. They got to meet each other and they gave us some really great feedback, and the managers got to meet them and learn their faces.
What other trends affect college foodservice?
One thing we’re trying to figure out is the whole late-night thing. Students usually skip breakfast, sleep late and at 1 a.m. they want a meal. But can you staff [a facility] at that time, afford it? It’s hard to make that call, but that’s what they want. It’s definitely a trend, so we’re extending our convenience-store hours for the fall, keeping it open until midnight. It’ll have grab-and-go food. We also have a pub that’ll be open until midnight during weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends, but that’s about as far as we’ve taken it so far.
How common are eating disorders on campus and how does it affect you?
It doesn’t impact my job a lot because they usually don’t even come forward for help. It’s estimated that three-quarters of college women have body issues that disrupt their daily lives. Approximately 16 percent to 20 percent of women have some kind of eating disorder ranging from binging and purging to overeating and anorexia. Of course, there’s a higher percentage of females—25 [percent] to 66 percent—who suffer from eating disorders, and college women outnumber any other group with bulimia.
What do you do to help?
The first thing I do is make sure they’re going to the counseling center, and if they’re not I really hesitate to work with them. An eating disorder is a symptom of something much larger than I’m equipped to deal with. It’s kind of different from case to case, but for someone with anorexia, I try to take their focus off of the calories…by explaining what calories are and what they do for you, the different nutrients they provide.