University develops ways to provide nutritional options to students
For many students, the Student Union Memorial Center and Park Student Union are more than just places to eat. They’re the only places to eat. This is where Christine Carlson, assistant director of nutrition, comes in.
Hired in summer 2014, Carlson is responsible for coordinating with UA-branded restaurants and vendors to integrate healthy items and practices. She also helps educate students about healthy eating and evidence-based nutrition.
“My role is collaborative with our senior executive chef,” she said. “Generally, with in-house concepts I offer suggestions of how to make the menu more nutrient-dense, including suggestions of specific foods or products.”
Recently, the university launched a campaign aimed at encouraging students to be health conscious. Known as “Nrich,” the new philosophy will govern how and what UA-branded restaurants and vendors serve students.
Along with Nrich, the UA is also one of 38 institutions participating in Partnership for a Healthier America’s Healthier Campus Initiative. Both moves have enabled the university to tout itself as being at the forefront of promoting student health and wellbeing.
At the retail level, that means the addition of UA-made and branded CHAMP grab-n-go items, yogurt based dressings and fresh pressed juices at some restaurants. This also includes ensuring a certain number of healthy options per menu, including plant-based meals.
The new PHA-HCI guidelines call for a limit on fried options. The guidelines stipulate that five fruits, five vegetables and two whole grain products must be available for every meal.
Still, with the recent addition of Indianapolis-based hamburger stand Steak ‘n Shake to the Student Union Memorial Center, some students are disappointed with what they perceive to be a lack of available healthy dining options.
According to guidelines set on the university-run PHA-HCI homepage, university-branded dining establishments are to “provide healthier food and beverage services in campus-operated dining venues every operational day.”
Matt Lubisich, ASUA president, said he believes students are looking for healthy options, and hopes the university will increase the number available to students.
“I plan to advocate for healthier options,” he said. “Because students want the best healthiest food for the best price.”
Women’s and Gender Studies junior Stefano Saltalamacchia, also a certified personal trainer, was skeptical of the addition of Steak ‘n Shake in the face of the UA’s proposed initiatives.
“If the university is trying to promote a healthier diet, it seems like they are going in the opposite direction,” he said.
However, Carlson noted Steak ‘n Shake is fundamentally different from UA-branded restaurants. Since it’s a third-party vendor, the university is not involved in Steak ‘n Shake menus.
Lubisich and Saltalamacchia agreed that the addition of Steak ‘n Shake, which will replace Burger King, was not the ideal healthy choice.
“It’s nothing against the vendor, that’s what they do,” Saltalamacchia said. “It’s an issue of decision making: Were there healthier options?”
Lubisich noted that the UA’s newest restaurant, also conveniently named Nrich Urban Market, seemed to be a good-faith effort by the university to offer students healthier choices. He called the recent opening a step in the right direction.
But Saltalamacchia felt the university could do more.
“It’s interesting, look at the size in square footage of the healthy eating establishments,” he said. “There is just this little corner when you compare it to the footprint of eating establishments on campus.”
Carlson said the university is working to provide healthier meal options across the board. As evidence, she cited an example of a healthy meal from each UA-branded restaurant.
Among them: An egg-white omelet with vegetable options at Cactus Grill, fruit-whips, salads and whole-grain wraps from IQ Fresh and a carving station that includes lean meats and roasted vegetables at The Arizona Room.
More than anything, Carlson sees her job as one of advocacy, first for a healthier lifestyle and second for student access to healthy food.
“I am actively working to make the offerings in our in-house restaurants more nutrient-dense and delicious,” she said.
Follow Eddie Celaya on Twitter.