Dining Hall and Student Center Report: Farm-to-table and beyond

Image courtesy of Purple Carrot Farm

Image courtesy of Purple Carrot Farm

Aria Killough-Miller '17 and Nam Phuong Doan '18

On September 7th, The Bennington Free Press met with Jeff Cairns, Aramark Dining Services Director, and Jessica MacLeay, the new Retail Operations Manager of the Student Center, to discuss this term’s new changes in two dining places on Bennington College’s campus: the Dining Hall and the Student Center.

Cairns stressed that because Dining Services encompasses both the Dining Hall and the Student Center, collaboration and unity are very important. Students have taken notice of the transformation in the Student Center, from the menu down to the packaging. This term, she has been working with Executive Chef Steve Bohrer, alongside with Director Cairns, to build the menus for the Dining Hall and the Student Center, which are aimed to complement each other. The Student Center’s menu is more straightforward with a set menu and weekly/daily specials, said MacLeay, while that of the Dining Hall is more fluid with a four-week alternate cycle. She also stated that the Student Center had more of a retail characteristic because the limitations of equipment did not allow for homestyle cooking.

Director Cairns, in reference to the Dining Hall, mentioned that they had more variety this year, especially more options for vegans/vegetarians. If students did not like something, the staff would delete it from the menu, and students would not see a completely repeated menu during the semester. One noted improvement is the increase of regional and cultural food (Korean, Indian, Chinese), into which Chef Steve has put a lot of thought. “It’s nice not to have burgers all the time,” said a third-year student, “and kudos to the ramen!” Cairns told a story of how he encountered Chef Steve piling up and sorting out all the napkin notes into categories in his office, and asserted that the chef was very open and receptive to have new recipes from students. “Steve really cares a lot,” said Cairns.

Regional/ ethnic dishes have also increased in the Student Center,  from kimchi bibimbap to from-scratch teriyaki noodles. Presentation is another objective this term, with round entree containers replacing the previous rectangular ones and carefully plated dish components. To complete the student center's renaissance, last Thursday marked the beginning of a number of new weekly specials including Vermont smoked and cured hotdogs. “You totally get what you paid for,” said MacLeay.

As of the regional chef meeting last May, Dining Services has newly committed themselves to more sustainability. The Dining Hall has doubled the number of local farms from which they purchase local products (students can read the list of local farm suppliers in both the Dining Hall and the Student Center); one example is Earth Sky Time, a local bakery that provides the College with organic wheat bread three times per week. Cairns mentioned that Aramark also had their own slaughterhouse in New York and New Hampshire to provide the college with more local, sustainable meat, while the Purple Carrot Farm on campus remains a frequent source of fresh vegetables like kale or beets for the Dining Hall. Director Cairns pointed out that since most farms did not produce in winter, this commitment to sustainability would become difficult in winter months; we will have more limited resources, and may as well order produces from San Francisco.

In addition, MacLeay and Cairns are planning an event series called “Meet Your Farmer Neighborhood” that will invite local farmers and producers to come to campus. This will give students and farmers the opportunity to get to know each other, as well as ask and answer questions related to farming and sustainable food.

Cairns recognized food waste as another aspect of sustainability. While the compost system maintains the same in the Dining Hall, the way food is cooked has shifted. For instance, instead of making 200 portions of stir-fry at once, the cooks will make 50 first and continue making more accordingly. “This way, the food is served fresher and we can avoid food waste,” said Cairns.

These changes in both dining places have brought a new atmosphere to our campus and dining culture, yet they do not come without their own set of problems, the most pressing of which is labour. The menu upgrade with new recipes and more whole ingredients requires more work from the staff and the student helpers. “We are looking for more part-time positions, which is not as easy in this area,” said Cairns. This also results in this term’s decrease in the set menu and expansion of Grab and Go in the Student Center, added MacLeay.

Having spent forty years in food services and twenty years in higher education dining services, Director Cairns knows first hand that changes take a lot of time and effort, and the hard work mostly maintains far beyond what is exposed to sight. MacLeay stated that the meals are labor-intensive, and that students only see a tenth of the changes that occur behind the scenes.

Towards the end of the conversation, Cairns also mentioned the upcoming eighteen-month renovation of Down Commons and the Dining Hall, starting summer 2017, during which the dining system will be moved to the Student Center. In order to ensure that these transformations progress as smoothly and transparently as possible, it is necessary to enhance communication between the Dining Services and Bennington students.

On this upcoming Wednesday, September 14th, the Dining Hall managers will be hosting a Food Community Meeting from 12:30 to 1:30 PM in the Big Room,. All students are welcome to join. In the meantime, MacLeay and Cairns encourage any and all students to come talk to them.