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Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

How we eat: Feeding 2,500 students

The complexities of dining preparations don’t usually cross our minds as we try to squeeze in meals between the hustle and bustle of classes, jobs and other commitments. Since most of the work is already done for us, we rarely consider the behind-the-scenes operations that allow for students to have a maximally comfortable dining experience. 

Middlebury Dining Services employs 106 people, including student employees, who assist with basic prep, run The Grille and manage the overall operations. Each dining hall has a head chef, a secondary group of chefs, dishwashing staff and a receiver in charge of handling food deliveries. 

“Many of our employees have been here for more than 20, sometimes even 30 years,” said Executive Director of Food Services Dan Detora.

The college’s three dining halls operate, for the most part, independently of each other, according to Detora. Although Atwater boasts the largest kitchen, food is prepared separately at each dining hall. This excludes the baked goods prepared at the bake shop, which is centralized at Proctor and provides all the bread and desserts for Proctor, Ross, Atwater, The Grille and Wilson Café. 

The bake shop is staffed with three professional bakers and a host of student workers responsible for making dessert bars and other sweet delicacies. Detora said that the shop is also home to MiddCakes and the headquarters of the “granola gang,” the group of students tasked with making granola for the entire campus. 

Ingredients for meals are typically ordered in bulk, meaning that the dining halls will order 1,000 pounds of squash at a time, for example. Because the dining facilities are rather small, materials are delivered to all three locations, plus The Grille, daily. This inventory is monitored through a system called E.A. Tech, which allows staff to keep track of what food needs to be ordered and informs dining halls from where they can borrow if one site runs out of something. 

Each dining hall receives the same materials, but each operates on an independent menu cycle that repeats itself every five weeks. Detora said that these menus are curated at the beginning of the semester, based on existing information about what students are eating and what they are not. In terms of how much food is made for each meal, production in each dining hall is determined by the previous experience of long-time employees. Ross, for example, will typically prepare an average of 1,000 portions of whatever is on the menu, Detora said. 

A significant amount of the food is also locally sourced. While the dining halls do have a contract with a national company called Reinhardt Foods, a lot of produce is purchased from nearby farms or from a company called Black River Produce, which Detora said “works as a middleman between us and the farms.” 

Coffee is purchased from Vermont Coffee, cheese from Cabot Creamery and milk from Monument Farms in Weybridge. In addition, beef is purchased from two Vermont beef farms, one in Cornwall and one in Essex. Instead of purchasing actual pieces of meat, the college will purchase whole animals, which are later slaughtered and packed at Vermont Packing. 

“If we can get it locally, we do,” Detora said. “We put over $1.2 million back into the economy last year in terms of local sourcing.” 

For a campus that is a national leader in sustainability, however, the focus of environmental and economic sustainability in the college’s purchasing practices is not widely broadcast.  

“I don’t think we do a good job, to be honest, with advertising what our purchasing practices are and how we are different than most schools,” Detora said. 

Detora said that a lot of schools use pasteurized carton eggs, whereas Middlebury “uses cracked, shelled eggs from just down the road.” Middlebury also uses real maple syrup in all of its dining halls, whereas UVM only has one dining hall that has real maple syrup, according to Detora.  

To ensure maximum freshness, food is typically prepared one day before it is served, unless frozen meats are being used, in which case the meals are prepared several days in advance. If chefs at a dining hall are cooking a Recipe from Home — a family recipe that a student has submitted — Detora said staff will conduct research in advance. Chefs will sometimes call the parents of students who submitted a recipe and ask for advice, and often invite the student into the kitchen to supervise the preparation process. 

One change the dining halls have had to contend with recently is the increase in the size of the student body over the past couple of years, and the out-the-door lines that coincide with it. 

According to Detora, Ross is built “for four- to five-hundred people tops,” but now serves around 1,000 people in one meal. The same goes for Atwater, where it is common to see students eating on the floor during lunch after all of the tables fill up. 

“On a typical Tuesday in Atwater, from 12:15–12:35 we swipe in anywhere between 1,600 to 1,800 students,” Detora said.

Detora said that the influx of students has proven to be particularly challenging given the small size of the Ross kitchen. 

“On a busy morning there will be six to eight chefs in there, and they’re all bumping into each other,” he said. 

Thankfully, the swipe system has helped staff gauge how many students are coming in, and what preparation adjustments need to be made. Still, this method is not always one hundred percent reliable. 

“I’d be lying to you if I said we haven’t run out of an entrée before,” Detora said. 

Despite these challenges, Detora believes the dining system has done rather well, considering it has to cater to all but the few students who aren’t on a meal plan.

Dining is also currently working to incorporate a system in which recipes can be converted into their nutritional value. This will allow each dining hall to post the nutritional information of each dish and not just the ingredients.