Food for Thought: Exploring Smith Dining!

28 Feb

Smith Dining Services is responsible for distributing anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 meals per week. But, more than that, they are responsible for satisfying and pleasing demanding Smithies, who, as we all know, are serious about their food! But have you ever wondered where those veggies on your plate were grown? Or who roasted the coffee that helps you stay up to study at night?

Well, this week I sat down with Kathy Zieja, the director of Dining Services, and she filled me in about the lesser-known side of the Smith dining world—a world of paperwork, budgeting, maneuvering, and constant challenges. Here are some of the things that I found out!

My first question had to do with menus. Smithies are lucky enough to have a variety of options when it comes to mealtime (and have the ability to check what’s for dinner online!), but who writes these menus? According to Kathy, she sits down with some of our cooks, chefs, and (sometimes) a student representative from the SGA once or twice per year to develop a six-week cycle of menus. Meals are tweaked based on popular and unpopular items, seasonal foods, cost, and kitchen production. Factors like time of day (during lunch, for example, Smithies are more likely to stay in center campus than head off to the Quad), holidays, brunch times, special days (think Julia Child Day!), monotony breakers, and popular foods (quesadillas anyone?) are also taken into account, as they have an effect on the amount of demand a dining hall will have. But, as most Smithies know, food does run out because this is not an exact science, and it is quite difficult to know exactly what any given day will bring (especially when it gets cold in the winter)!

But let’s talk more about where exactly this food is coming from. Because Smith is a big consumer, a Prime Vendor bid is held every five years, meaning that various vendors will propose prices and products, respond to diet trends, and compete for Smith’s business. This Prime Vendor makes twelve stops twice a week—and supplies frozen food, canned food, fresh food, and meats. Smith’s prime vendor is currently Black River Produce (you’ve probably seen the trucks around campus), and they were chosen because they try to source most of their products from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts—but obviously seasonal availability (and price) affect their supply chain, so that is not always possible.

However, Smith also works with Secondary Vendors, who are able to provide local (and sometimes organic) produce, if it’s available. One of these secondary vendors is Outlook Farm, run by Brad Morse, who provides products dependent on the season. Currently he is supplying us with local apples. He also works with other farmers in the area to connect them with Smith, and, about a decade ago, organized a workshop (held at Smith) for local producers and the respective five-college dining services, to help foster new business relationships between both groups.

But what has been the result of this outreach? Well, next time you eat carrots or parsnips, they could have been biked over from Winter Moon Roots in Hadley, where innovative techniques, that require minimal electricity and no refrigerants, are being used to store organic vegetables. (Winter Moon Roots aims to be completely carbon neutral by 2015—and, because of their hard work, are well on their way to achieving that goal.) Beef is sourced from Maine and slaughtered in New Jersey (as Massachusetts has only one slaughterhouse—a topic for another week!), before making its way to Smith. However, the amount of beef that Smithies are eating has been decreasing in recent years, while the amount of leafy greens and dark vegetables has increased! The coffee served in our dining halls is fair trade, certified organic, kosher, and roasted a few minutes away at Indigo Coffee, a woman-owned business in Florence. Dining Services has purchased produce from Smithies that run the community garden on campus for use in the CC Café, and, as of this January, Smith has transitioned over to using only cage-free eggs, a new standard that they are quite excited about. The cooks and chefs in the kitchens also make an effort to use very little butter and seasoning (mostly just canola oil is used), allowing Smithies to choose whether or not they want to add these ingredients to their meals later on.

Student involvement has been huge in helping Smith Dining to expand and change. For example, during the 2004-2005 school year, changes (including the addition of the vegan/vegetarian dining hall, Asian dining hall, kosher dining hall, and grab & go) were implemented because of student input, and dining hours were also extended. Some of you will also remember when Chapin opened for the first time on Sunday afternoons; this was also requested by students. But what changes can we look for in the future? Well, the discussion about another vegan/vegetarian dining hall has definitely begun—so watch out for that in years to come!

And if you have questions, comments, concerns, or suggestions about dining at Smith, they’d love to hear them! Contact a dining manager, dining services (they will respond!), or, feel free to email Kathy directly. Dining services is working hard to balance demand with and numerous other factors (as you’ve read!), while also setting their sights on a 30% sustainability goal, which will hopefully grow in years to come. They are always open to, and excited about, student’s thoughts and ideas—so don’t hesitate to speak up!

But wait—what is the dining director’s favorite Smith meal?

“Tuna fish, ask anyone! And I’m always happy to see salmon on the menu.” She’s also a big fan of the salad bar, and, judging from the increasing amounts of salad fare they’ve been purchasing, so are you Smithies!

Thanks for reading!

P.S. Looking for a great way to use all those local root vegetables that are floating around the Valley? Try out this hearty, vegan root vegetable stew that kept my roommates and I warm during the snowstorm a few weeks ago!


What you’ll need:

2 T Olive Oil

2 Onions

2 T Garlic (or more, if you’re a garlic lover like me!)

Sea Salt

1 Skinned Rutabaga (1),

2 Large Peeled Turnips

6 Carrots

6 Parsnips

6 Potatoes

4 cups vegetable stock (or water if you want!)

5 Tablespoons flour (this is just for thickening, and if you’re gluten intolerant, shredded or mashed potatoes works just as well!)


1 T Dried Basil

2 Bay Leaves

Dash of Nutmeg

Dash of Cinnamon

Dash of Ginger

Chop up all of the vegetables into bite sized pieces. I found it was easiest to do this first so that everything was ready to go when I needed it. You can also peel the carrots, parsnips, & potatoes if you want, but it’s really not necessary and I think that the skins give it a bit more texture. Warm about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onions and sauté them with about teaspoon of sea salt. Once the onions are translucent, add the chopped garlic. Sauté for two or three more minutes, and then add the vegetables in stages. Start with the hardest, densest vegetables, and work up to the softer ones. Each time you add vegetables to the pot, season them with a sprinkle of salt, and let them cook for about 5 to 7 minutes. Continue to stir the mixture so that the olive oil gets distributed evenly throughout. Repeat process until you’ve added all your vegetables.

Now it’s time to add your stock. Optional: if you want to add the dried basil, bay leaves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger, do it right before you put your stock in. Bring the stew up to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Let it cook for at least 30 minutes, or until your vegetables are tender (stick your fork in to check!). Once the vegetables are tender, stir in the flour, adding one tablespoon at a time (or add the shredded potatoes, and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes). The broth will start to thicken with each additional tablespoon of flour. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately, or stick it in the freezer for an easy meal to warm up a frosty winter night. (Or, better yet, can it!) Enjoy!


And thanks again to Kathy Zieja for taking time out of her busy schedule to sit down with me and chat!

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