OSU Food: Why Hide the Healthy Stuff? (full article by Genevieve Weber)

For the print version of this article, and the response by Tara Sanders, visit:
OSU Food: Why Hide the Healthy Stuff?

The article below is a more in-depth piece based on a conversation that took place at OSU’s Marketplace West dining hall between Genevieve Weber (Editor of the Corvallis Advocate), Robyn Jones (Director of Memorial Union Retail Foodservice at OSU), Rich Turnbull (Director of University Housing and Dining Services Foodservice), and Tara Sanders (a Registered Dietician with UHDS).

OSU Foodservices wished to rebut an article written by Cristina Himka in the Corvallis Advocate in October, 2012, entitled, OSU Foods: Best Advice—Eat Off Campus.

The article below is by Genevieve Weber. To view the second full article by Tara Sanders, visit: Healthy Options: It’s A Matter of Choice.


‘Comfort Food’ and Economics vs. Health 

Beginning in fall of this year, Oregon State University freshmen will be required to live on campus, but even now 80-85% live in dorms. When recent OSU graduate Cristina Himka penned her article about the abundance of unhealthy campus foods, she discovered that even seemingly healthy foods often contained high levels of sodium and saturated fats. She also pointed out some of the better options on campus. But after a recent meeting with OSU’s Foodservice leaders at their request (they wished to rebut the article), it seems like the University is actually trying to hide their healthier foods—they’re certainly not actively promoting them.

OSU purchases some local foods for campus eateries. Their foodservice staff seems well-intentioned, and they want to provide healthy options—you can get vegetable and whole-grain sides, and even entrees. But more often, students are bombarded by pizza and burgers when they enter a dining hall; making freshmen wade through sodium and fat to find healthy options is not an effective way to encourage good eating habits.

As a glaring example, a “small” tofu curry bowl I’ve purchased from Ring of Fire in OSU’s Marketplace West dining hall (made with brown rice and a plethora of vegetables), is actually 720 calories with 15g of saturated fat (75% of my daily recommended intake) and 720mg of sodium. The vegetarian tofu pho—sounds healthy, right?—boasts 1,440mg of sodium (60% of the recommended daily levels for a 2,000-calorie per day diet).

Serving Freshmen

Freshmen take a required basic healthy living class, which is great, but it’s also just that—basic. It doesn’t address things like organic or local foods, and it skims a wide range of health-related topics.

“The evidence that organic food is healthier isn’t there,” said Tara Sanders, a Registered Dietician with OSU’s University Health and Dining Services. “When you’re talking about from a food systems standpoint, certainly, but that’s not part of the curriculum of HHS231.”

Rich Turnbull, Director of University Housing and Dining Services Foodservice at OSU, assumes a broader view of health and nutrition for University freshmen.

“Our goal for freshmen is to meet them where they are when they arrive at campus, and that first term for first-year freshmen is an emotional roller coaster ride… One of the things that’s helpful for them when they arrive here is having available comfort food,” he said.

He says sales show that freshmen eventually predominantly purchase foods beyond what he considers typical “comfort” items—i.e. pizza and burgers (I’d love to see that data).

“I think it’s part of the natural maturity of students,” he added.

That’s surprisingly naïve for a food service professional, especially given the obesity epidemic currently afflicting the US. But Turnbull is quite willing to blame the “freshman 15” phenomenon on alcohol. Obviously, it’s got nothing to do with OSU’s abundance of “comfort food.”

“When we talk about healthy food choices, we have to understand that there are a lot of diverse opinions about that… We have diverse options to meet the needs of a very diverse population, and we’re not going to dictate their food choices,” said Sanders.

The trouble is that many students don’t have a choice—they eat what’s available on campus. And health is not always a matter of opinion. We know that excessive intake of sodium, fats, sugars, and calories in general will lead to health problems.

“It happens all the time where we implement healthier options and we just don’t sell. The hamburgers are supplementing those items because that’s what the students are choosing,” said Robyn Jones, Director of OSU’s Memorial Union Retail Foodservice.

While that’s contradictory to Turnbull’s assertion that students eventually choose healthier foods on their own, Sanders confirmed, “That’s why we have this stealthy approach rather than a direct approach, because when we do that it doesn’t sell.”

Stealth Health?

One of OSU’s “stealth health” ideas is to provide fresh fruit (apples, bananas, etc.) by every cash register for $0.75, to give students easy access to a healthy option. That’s fantastic, but it seemed a bit expensive.

“There are some times during the year when we might make 10 or 15 cents on a piece of fruit, and other times when we lose money,” said Turnbull.

It was apple season, and Corvallisites have access to a winter’s worth of local apples for cents on the pound. Still, for a large University trying to provide fruit that made some sense. But Turnbull attempted to convince me, incorrectly, that apples were really quite expensive at the moment.

“I was at Winco yesterday; an apple was $2.99 per pound,” he said with a flourish.

“At Safeway, same thing, I paid $2.99,” agreed Jones.

The same week that we met, local organic apples at the First Alternative Co-op were $1.49 per pound. OSU’s food leaders were not only unaware of this, but they also didn’t believe the information presented.


For University Health and Dining Services (UHDS), which primarily concerns itself with student dining halls, “The majority of our revenue comes from meal plans. We accept cash and credit, we’re open to the public,” Sanders explained.

Jones, whose foodservice operations in the Memorial Union (MU) are entirely separate from UHDS said, “I rely on everybody who walks through the door. I receive no money; in fact I need to give back to the student union to help reduce student fees.”

Jones is responsible for keeping one of OSU’s healthiest restaurants, Pangea Café, up and running. But it’s not easy.

“I got brought in, and they said, ‘You need to design a restaurant to make money,’” said Jones, “and quite honestly Pangea does not make money. It’s higher labor, for the most part we’re making everything from scratch, we use student employees, and so it costs a heck of a lot more to give you that really nice brown rice and veggie bowl.”

But while the MU’s Panda Express, Carl’s Jr., and TOGO’s sandwich shop are given front and center stage in the “Commons” near a building entrance, healthy-optioned Pangea Café is tucked down a hallway with little signage.

When asked why the MU had a Panda Express rather than, say, a more authentic Chinese food restaurant, Jones explained, “It has to do with economics, and that perception—it’s a name brand, it’s recognition, they seek that out… I’m providing choices, and they’re going to go off campus to find a Panda Express versus having something that’s healthier, and that’s been proven. They want the Panda Express.”

In terms of why the MU doesn’t provide more options like Pangea rather than Panda Express and Carl’s Jr., Jones added, “And then they’ll leave campus, and that’s a financial burden for campus…We’re trying to keep the dollars on campus.”

Jones said that studies done a number of years ago showed that the students themselves wanted eateries like Panda Express on campus. At the MU, these restaurants rent out space, are self-operated, and MU Retail Foodservices gets a portion of their sales.

Sanders added, “The other piece of this puzzle is that we are a values-based enterprise—revenue that we make goes back into our services, we don’t receive any funding from the University… we need to be able to make a profit. We’ll have things like Pangea because it’s the right thing to do; however, Carl’s Jr. probably supplements Pangea, so if we had all Pangeas we probably wouldn’t be able to stay in business.”

When asked if they’d install an organic café or restaurant on campus, Sanders replied, “My challenge is back to what message are we sending: in order to eat healthy you have to eat organic? That’s the struggle.” In reference to organic eaters, “It’s a very small population as of now.”

Really? In Oregon? So OSU provides plenty of “comfort food,” and a relatively wide variety of ethnic foods, including white rice, a traditional part of many Asian students’ diets (also linked to various metabolic syndromes), but no organic eatery. In other words, OSU Foodservice sees that marketing organic foods could bias students against proven profit centers; organics aren’t promoted and they therefore don’t sell well. Yes, that’s as circuitous as it sounds.

If campus-goers did desire organic food, would anything change?

“The demand hasn’t been in place to really do a feasibility study,” said Tara.

Locally-Grown Food

OSU seasonally purchases some local foods to be served at campus eateries. They also attempt to buy some frozen items out of season in order to keep their purchases of fruits and vegetables more local. According to Turnbull and Jones, local food vendors include: Riverwood Orchards, Hammond Hills, Country Natural beef, Raintree Farms, Spring Valley Dairy, and others. Turnbull said that OSU is also a member of the Food Alliance.

In terms of getting more local growers onboard with OSU, Turnbull stated that, “There are challenges in terms of getting connected with those growers, and the pricing structure, and the delivery structure… One of the issues with local farms has to do with how they clean and prepare their produce.”

OSU holds a contract with Pacific Coast (a produce company), which provides the University with a sheet of local fresh veggie and fruit options each week. During the winter season, choices are generally limited to 1 or 2 items.

“[Pacific Coast is] buying it from local farmers, they’re bringing it to Portland, they’re cleaning it, and they’re shipping it to us,” explained Turnbull. “One of the challenges with some local farms, not all, is that there aren’t too many growers who have the facilities to actually clean that product so that we don’t drag the mud and the dirt in through our back door, our kitchen, potentially contaminating other foods.”

Turnbull emphasized that farmers must handle their food, clean it, and maintain their equipment in certain ways in order for their produce to be servable by OSU.

“If you can’t do that, then we can’t buy from you. And that’s an obstacle for local farmers,” who could otherwise sell at the farmers’ market or supply to local restaurants much more easily.

Investing in proper cleaning facilities would be a viable option to help include more local produce in on-campus foods. Another problem faced by OSU is that the University can’t support an abundance of delivery trucks on campus. Turnbull said he applied for a grant with Ten Rivers Food Web to create a mid-Valley food hub that could aid in delivery issues. He estimates that the grant was awarded about a year ago.

“I’m not sure exactly about where people are,” he said.

Local vegetables also feature in OSU’s “stealth health” concept, monthly sampling tables.

“We’ll feature a local vegetable, and students are drawn to the table because it’s free, not because it’s a local food, but we’re able to engage them long enough to start talking about why it’s important, but it’s not the initial draw,” said Tara. “So that’s the climate, the context, of what we’re working within.”

So if OSU buys local produce and meats fairly regularly, and if Foodservices recognizes students’ lack of appreciation for locally-grown items, then why not promote local foods?

“We are committed to local for a lot of reasons, we want to help sustain our economic community, and we know that the fresher, the more nutrients,” said Sanders. “However, I want to be careful when we have this discussion around having access to healthy options, that we’re not sending the message that not eating local fruits and vegetables is not healthy. It’s limited in data, but also it’s just not realistic… We want to be able to send the right message.”

OSU Sits This One Out

Buying local foods, while an excellent decision, and even providing vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free options, doesn’t mean that the food served to students is actually healthy to eat on a regular basis (remember that curry bowl?). By providing students with abundant “comfort foods,” and not actively promoting healthy options, of course the demand for healthier foods isn’t as big as it could be.

“When we talk about healthy food choices, we have to understand that there are a lot of diverse opinions about that… We have diverse options to meet the needs of a very diverse population, and we’re not going to dictate their food choices,” said Sanders.

The trouble is that many students don’t have a choice—they eat what’s available on campus. And health is not always a matter of opinion. We know that excessive intake of sodium, fats, sugars, and calories in general will lead to health problems.

“We’re doing what we can, healthy options are here, but we’re not doing a lot of promoting it… but there may be other ways to do that.”

Sanders hopes that with changing K-12 education systems, students will be exposed to healthy nutrition at a younger age, and that demand for healthier foods will grow on campus. But due to both timidity and economics, OSU doesn’t seem at all willing to play a role in that evolution. And despite America’s obesity epidemic, OSU Foodservices knows with what sells.

by Genevieve Weber