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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

Unhealthy food options linger at the DC

A batch of neon yellow eggs coagulates into chunks above a watery base in one of many warm metal dishes along a service line: strips of bacon atop oil-soaked bread, sugar-dusted pancakes and glistening potatoes. With a quick swipe of their plastic ID cards, students are lured to the UC Davis Dining Commons (DC) by the smell of glazed donuts and frosted cinnamon rolls.

While the all-you-can-eat model of UC Davis dining is economical according to Dining Services Director of Sustainability and Nutrition Linda Adams, as far as redeeming the labor, water, and electricity used to produce the food, concerns about the environment may also facilitate the mass production of food.

Although these issues are foremost the responsibility of Dining Services staff members, General Manager of Resident Dining Brenan Connolly said they have trouble modifying the menu and its nutritional content if the most popular and consumed dishes are the less healthy ones.

“There’s too much opposition to messing with some of our [less healthy] dishes,” Connolly said.

The amount and type of oil used in these dishes is a point of contention for some students. Thibault Hoppe-Glosser, a senior science and technology studies major, tilted his empty plate of beef tacos (550 calories, 21g fat, 5g saturated fat, according to nutritional information provided by Adams) to expose a dark orange puddle. Next to him was a half-eaten grilled portobello burger (610 calories, 34g fat, 9g saturated fat) with a visibly damp bun.

“I’m usually not very picky, but this looks too unhealthy,” Hoppe-Glosser said, pushing the plate out of sight.

It turns out the chefs mainly use canola oil. For more “traditional dishes” they will cook with a half-soybean, half-olive oil mixture or UC Davis-grown olive oil, according to Adams. Adams also said the Dining Commons still incorporate butter into certain recipes.

“Butter has a specific taste, one that is drastically different from olive oil. I happen to love butter myself!” said Adams, who is in lean, marathon-running-type shape.

The house granola offered at breakfast is one such recipe that adds butter for consistency and flavor. It has certainly stood the test of time, for Adams remembered the exact same granola during her college career at Chico State University working for Saga Food Service, the equivalent of UC Davis’ food provider Sodexo.

Even the ever-so-popular, or rather unpopular, ingredient MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) has yet to be completely banned from the three DCs. Approximately seven items, including pita chips, Hidden Valley Ranch and a few soup bases have MSG listed among their ingredients, but not as an allergen.

After a student had an allergic reaction to the savory food additive, Dining Services conducted an in-depth ingredients search and ultimately stopped serving all but one of the seven products, Connolly and Adams said.

The deviating point along this scatterplot is “English Country Gravy,” a white, creamy sauce that accompanies buttermilk biscuits. On the nutrition sheet above its long ladle, “Contains MSG” reads in red.

Connolly said Dining Services works with the Student Farm to purchase seasonal vegetables for Tercero and Cuarto — but not Segundo.

“The Student Farm doesn’t have the volume to produce for the whole campus, but we are working with them to plant more products,” Connolly said.

While fingers may immediately point at campus leadership and members of UC Davis Dining Services, Dining Commons staff said they ultimately serve the students and their requests.

“It is obviously more expensive for us to buy organic rice from Michael Bosworth’s farm in Sacramento Valley instead of the bulk Sodexo grain, but the question is whether or not students put more value on quality. Do they want us to spend a cent more for fair-trade bananas?” Adams said.

After five years of hard protest, Adams finally convinced upper management to cut and bake, not defrost and deep-fry, now-fresh French fries.

Most of the corporate pushback stemmed from concerns over efficiency. It essentially takes greater time and attention to cook food the right way than the easy way, said Adams.

What’s surprising is that the students had more trouble accepting this change. Connolly noted that they appreciated the fast-food nature of the fries, the potato-like taste of the golden sticks.

Dining Services Nutrition Intern Sarah Lau said that she doesn’t think the DC is unhealthy. For Lau, a senior clinical nutrition major, it depends on what students are choosing to eat; for example, eating three slices of pizza for dinner will not be healthy.

“Sometimes, I realized too DC food is salty, [such as the] Mongolian Wok, and I usually send an e-mail to them to tell them about the food. The DC needs feedback from the students. If students think the food is unhealthy and oily, they need to respond to DC. Overall, I think DC provides decent and healthy meals every day,” Lau said in an e-mail.

Lau said that if a student wishes to eat healthy and doesn’t know what to eat, they should look for the “happy healthy apple” sign on the menu. One apple means that the food is good, two apples mean better and three apples mean best.

While nutritionists can continuously promote the addition of more vegan dishes, they can’t help it if quinoa returns to the dishwasher untouched and pork carnitas comes back licked clean. When the DC conducts their triennial assessments, Adams said these trends show up on the reports, the same evaluations that dictate future menus.

It’s a classic chicken-or-the-egg problem: The DC can’t serve healthier items if students keep eating the unhealthy ones, and students will continue eating unhealthily if there aren’t enough healthy options.
So what to do? Well, for one, Adams’ mission is to remove from DC menus the processed and sodium-heavy items like chicken patty sandwiches and cheeseburgers. She said to give her until the end of the year to remove the last MSG item, country gravy, from dishes.
The new Aggie Dish app for iPhones is now available for downloading, and contains nutritional information for two days’ worth of DC menus. Adams and Connolly hope their summer interns will finish including all dishes’ ingredients in the app by the start of Fall Quarter.
The bigger question is whether or not students will accept that the DC is not a fast food joint.

“Save [eating oily food] for McDonald’s and In-n-Out. The DC is just like your home kitchen,” Adams said.

CHELSEA MEHRA can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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