Guiding the seafood consumers of the future: a Q&A with UMass Dining

Over the past 10 years, the goal of UMass Dining has been to prepare delicious meals that feature local, healthy, and sustainable food products and lead the food service industry in innovation and environment practices. As the largest campus dining operation in the nation, they have an opportunity to take the lead and set a good example with young consumers. Approximately 70% of their seafood now comes from Alaska including salmon, cod, haddock and surimi, while 20% comes from New England. A few years ago UMass began sourcing from their regional food system. In addition to lobster, they source underutilized seafood like red fish, pollock, flounder and dogfish shark to support local fisheries.

What have been the expected and unexpected outcomes from this transition to serving more sustainable seafood?

Well, our approach to seafood purchasing works! So far in fiscal year 2016, our seafood consumption is up by 5% over last year. The average number of seafood items served per week increased 14.8% from Fall 2015 to Spring 2016. This fits our healthy menu strategy of serving more lean protein, such as fish, to our students. We were surprised that there was not a single complaint in serving little known or underutilized fish, such as red fish. A key to success is to work with good chefs to create dishes that taste good since the texture of this fish is different than more popular species.

How are you promoting sustainable seafood to your students? What’s resonating?

We have guest chef events frequently with demonstrations and tastings, plus we work closely with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute who visit our campus to talk about nutrition benefits, scientific facts, and social responsibility of sustainable seafood, as part of our educational lecture series.

Communicating and connecting with students is a critical part in the overall dining experience. We use all current social media brands (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) to connect and share what we are doing. Our social media influence is one of the largest for the collegiate dining segment – we are approaching 18,000 fans on Facebook. As a result, we’re able to immediately connect with our millennial students in a medium that they follow closely.

In addition to social media, we also use more traditional forms of communication like flyers, event posters, and digital and print ads, as well as word of mouth to make sure all our customers are up to date with our latest initiatives. We have also launched an app so we’re able to promote specials, send targeted push messaging, give easy access to menus for all our locations as well as indicate how busy a location is at any given time.

We’re competing for the attention span of millennials, which is very short, so you have to get to the point quickly. Millenials are also very visual, so we try to tell the stories of our food through images. We have five seconds for them to make a decision before they move on. Millennials are willing to try new items, but they want to know the story behind why they should eat a fish. If it supports a good cause, tastes good, and it’s good for them, they will consume it.

What are you hearing from the next generation of consumers – your students – about seafood and sustainability?

Our millennial diners want us to serve them a variety of healthy and flavorful meals featuring local, regional and world cuisine in a sustainable and environmentally conscious manner. They want traceability, transparency and quality.
In discussions about seafood, students ask us about toxic chemicals and their effects, nutritional value, and whether the fish is wild or farmed. When we put farmed and wild salmon out side by side, the wild goes much faster than the farmed fish. To millennials, “wild” is natural, cleaner, less processed, and better for the planet.

We really are a living laboratory. Twice a year we survey 4000 students and we are good at using that information to enhance what we give them. We are currently working on a 2-year study in partnership with the Department of Public Health, tracking 400 freshmen, looking at eating in relationship to students’ grade point average. Six months in, initial data indicate that eating more lean proteins is related to a higher GPA and higher sugar consumption to a lower GPA. We tell our students that seafood is brain food.

Millennials will be setting the dinner table of the future. What changes are you seeing in the food choices they make, and how are you a part of that?

There are significant changes. There is what we call a “protein flip” going on. Just since last fiscal year, red meat consumption is down 30%. Whole grain/plant based proteins are up by 35%, and lean proteins like seafood are up by 25%. Soda consumption is down by 20%. Currently lean protein or plant-based protein is 50% of protein consumption, but five years from now it will be more like 75%. Also, students want smaller portions of better quality food. For example, a meat portion once was 5-6 oz; now it’s 3 oz. And we are serving 3 to 4 times more fruit and vegetables now than when our program first started.

Have you noticed any ripple effects from your efforts? Are you promoting this model to peers and are other university food systems following your lead?

UMass dining is one of the most talked about and the most awarded dining programs in the nation. At every opportunity, including presentations at various conferences, we talk about sustainable seafood and how it is a triple bottom-line winner for any operation. Our peers call us frequently for advice on how to duplicate our sustainable efforts. Recently, we wrote a book entitled ‘Making Local, Healthy, Sustainable Delicious – The How-To Guide for Food Service Operators’. The Guide offers a step-by-step approach to help large-volume foodservice operations in the educational and health care areas.

Our hope is that some of the things we talk about will stick with our students for the rest of their lives and other food service organizations—whether it’s K-12, health care, etc.—can have the same impact because they touch a lot of lives every day too. We hope that through our initiatives we’re able to create change not just in our sector but in other food service sectors as well.

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