An Unlikely Fellow: Dispatches from the Trenches of Institutional Dining

By Hailey Grohman

At first glance, a stuffy conference room on the third floor of the Dean of Students building may not seem like the development site for the future of institutional food systems. It’s not a particularly glamorous place, not the bucolic landscape or corporate boardroom we might associate with important food decisions. However, this unassuming space, home of the Dining Implementation Team, is the site of one lofty goal: to support UVM in becoming a leader in institutional food provision. To do this, they must push the boundaries of what it means to feed 10,000 people every day while guided by an ethos of sustainability.


Since January, I’ve served as one of two of the inaugural UVM dining fellows, a position created as part of UVM and Sodexo’s innovative new contract, which was signed last summer. As a fellow, I joined the Dining Implementation Team, an intimidating and inspiring bunch of deans, faculty, and students who are grappling with many of the questions I have explored more theoretically in my graduate coursework. The answers were never simple, as we attempted to balance an idealized vision of the UVM food system against the necessary pragmatism of feeding an entire campus quickly and efficiently.

UVM and Sodexo Contract Focuses on Sustainability, Engagement

The need for the Dining Implementation Team arose from the most recent contract between UVM and Sodexo, which advanced industry standards through its commitment to values like environmental sustainability, local food procurement, and student engagement. This contract followed a Request for Proposal (RFP) that included tough stipulations like financial transparency for supplier rebates, a practice that has historically stayed under wraps.

Values like the ones mentioned above sound great in a contract, but to translate them to a set of practices or a menu is much more complex. My role as a fellow was to develop indicators for the values expressed in UVM Dining’s contract, which attempts to address a diverse set of needs while maintaining financial viability. I was in for the professional development experience of my life.

The process of translating imprecise values such as health, engagement, sustainability, and transparency into goals and numbers was—and remains—immeasurably difficult. These values, which many would say drew them to UVM in the first place, serve as important markers of our identities. We are guided by our values in the choices we make every day, choosing eating patterns such as vegetarianism or localvorism in order to form a food ethic that matches our personal ethic. It is a process fraught with individual and cultural meaning. So what happens when these values conflict?

A good example of this tension lies in UVM’s 2012 ban on bottled water on campus. At first glance, banning bottled water is a natural extension of the sustainability that defines UVM. Reducing bottled water means reducing plastic in the waste stream. In practice, however, it’s not so simple. Unintended consequences can occur anytime changes are made to one part of a larger system. Research by UVM faculty found that after the ban, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages increased while bottles in the waste stream remained the same. As a food provider, do we want people to drink healthier beverages, or do we want to reduce packaging? How do we prioritize one value over another, and do we have to? Combine that with the constraint of UVM Dining’s bottom line, which requires the selling of some kind of beverage, and there are no easy answers.

A Complex Process

Navigating these conflicts was a daily part of my job as a UVM dining fellow and of the jobs of the hundreds of people who make dining possible at UVM. For anyone who thinks this is a simple task, I recommend a day in the life of Melissa Zelazny, general manager of Sodexo or Dennis DePaul, assistant dean for business operations at UVM. It’s important to remember that even in the most organized systems, decision making is a complex and faulty process. Real human beings are addressing the challenges of our dining experience, and their ideas about what is best, or what to value most, often come into conflict. One thing we can do as campus members is to speak: to make our values known, and to understand that compromise is an important part of progress. Many UVM groups are doing this every day: the Real Food Challenge Working Group, Slade House, Farm to Table House, and more.

There is a running joke in my family that since going to graduate school, the only thing I can confidently say is, “It’s complicated.” This time, though, I really mean it: Translating the dietary needs, health choices, and value preferences of 10,000 people into three meals a day while keeping costs down is just about as complicated as it gets. Let’s be sensitive to the complexity of this task, and consider the systems that surround our daily meals, but let’s also continue to challenge the status quo so that our idealized visions don’t succumb to the pragmatic.

-Hailey Grohman is a graduate student in food systems with research interests in food communication and media.

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