By Ed Brennen
Judging by the purple, pink and yellow floral leis, the hula grass table skirts and the pineapples and coconuts scattered around the South Campus Dining Commons, this clearly wasn’t a typical Wednesday afternoon lunch.
For hungry students grabbing a bite between classes, the recent “Taste of the Tropics” menu was a fun and pleasant surprise. But for the graduate students serving up the Jamaican jerk chicken and tangy beef bowls with coconut brown rice, the lunch was the culmination of a semester of careful planning and hard work.
A graduate program introduced two years ago in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences – the Master’s in Public Health with a focus on dietetics – lets students spend a semester working as interns for University Dining Services. The internship is part of a three-credit Food and Nutrition Management course taught by lecturer Michelle Palladino.
Under the tutelage of executive chef Frank Hurley and executive sous chef Mike Petit, students get hands-on experience in the South Campus kitchen, where they learn everything from food prep and safety to knife skills and food waste composting. At the semester-ending “Dining Hall Takeover,” student teams serve the dishes that they’ve not only prepared, but also budgeted and marketed.
“Some people came back for seconds or thirds, which I was really happy to see,” first-year grad student Federica Fiore said as the tropical takeover was coming to a close. “We had a lot of positive feedback, which was great.”
Fiore, a registered dietitian in her native Italy, was part of a student team serving the tangy beef bowls at the gluten-free “Choices” station. Another team served the jerk chicken (with sweet potato wedges and Greek yogurt broccoli slaw) at the “Homestyle” station, while a third team set up an appetizer table with three kinds of dip – red pepper hummus, pineapple salsa and honey Greek yogurt – along with fruit skewers, pita chips and sliced peppers, carrots and cucumbers.
“The dips were really tasty,” senior public health major Lewis Kerrebrock said as he filled out a survey the grad students used to collect feedback on their creations. “It was a total surprise to see this here, but it’s cool that they do stuff like this.”
Brandon Yerov, a freshman nutritional science major (and vegan), gave high marks to his beef bowl (hold the beef, please).
“It was delicious. I gave it a 10 for appearance and an 8 for taste,” Yerov said. “I’d like to see it on the menu.”
Program Director Renee Barrile, a lecturer in the Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Department, says it’s important for students training to be registered dietitians to have a working knowledge of cooking, especially on a mass scale.
“If they’re working in a hospital and trying to provide therapeutic diets for people, the food has to be good,” Barrile says. “They may end up working with a kitchen no matter what their job is, and if they don’t have an understanding of how it works, they’re not credible.”
Victoria O’Rourke, a first-year grad student in the program, enjoyed playing with recipes to maximize their nutritional value (plain yogurt instead of vanilla to cut down on sugar) and working with Rachel DiGregorio, marketing manager for University Dining, on promoting the event. But one of her biggest takeaways was the focus on sustainability.
“I learned a lot about how they minimize food waste,” said O’Rourke, a Dracut native who earned her undergraduate degrees in psychology and nutrition from UML in 2016. “They don’t use trays anymore, and they give students smaller plates to help cut down on waste. Students may not think it’s a big deal – ‘Hey, I’m paying for this’ – but at the end of the day, it’s still waste.”
Haylee Dussault ’16 is among the first six students expected to graduate from the program this spring. The Wakefield native, who took part in the first Dining Hall Takeover last spring, says working behind the scenes gave her a new appreciation for the dining hall meals she ate as an undergrad earning her bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences.
“It was eye-opening to see just how much goes into feeding the thousands of students each day,” says Dussault, who is now working as an intern with the food service director for the Waltham public schools – a line of work she hopes to pursue.
“Food service has really become my passion in dietetics,” Dussault says.