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Campus dietician trying to improve dining experiences one student at a time

Dining while in college can seem daunting. Students often struggle with the need to both maintain their health and manage specific dietary needs, on top of the many other stressors that being in college brings. Here at Brandeis, there are safeguards in place and people to turn to if dining on campus is not what you need it to be. Nolan Reese, campus registered dietician, is one of these people to turn to. 

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Reese explained the many different ways he is aiming to improve dining on campus for not only the health and safety of students but also for increased sustainability and to cultivate a sense of comfort and community here at Brandeis. As campus dietician, Reese’s work expands from communication with students and parents about dining needs to developing menus, working on educational events and maintaining truth in menuing and safety surrounding allergens. Simply put, Reese is the link between students and dining staff, stating that “I want to make sure that I’m that bridge to help them [students] feel comfortable and make sure their needs are met.” Feeling more comfortable in the dining halls is the first step in transitioning into college, as food is such a large part of culture and socialization as well as a key aspect of maintaining one’s overall health. Reese recognizes this and aims to give all students adequate meal options so that dining is a source of joy rather than a stressor. He is using his passion for food and health sciences in order to help students get what they need out of their dining experiences. 

Dining on campus is far from perfect, as touched upon in a previous Hoot article, but Reese is aiming to improve dining through student feedback, especially for students with specific dietary restrictions or allergies. Reese is available to meet with students “to discuss dietary needs, what things they might be struggling to find, helping to identify what they are looking for in the dining halls and either pointing them in the right direction or taking their feedback to the team so that we can implement … a new menu item or concept.” For example, Reese recently met with a student with a specific dietary restriction and planned specific menu items for them for the upcoming week so the student is able to feel more secure in what they consume in the dining halls. Reese also sits in on the Senate dining committee meetings to take feedback from students to relay to other dining staff. 

Recent changes implemented in the dining halls and retail locations include an increased focus on vegan options for students. Reese explained that the Rustic Roots stations in the dining halls are almost one hundred percent vegan, and that the dining staff upholds the highest standards when it comes to vegan diets “to make sure we are accommodating all folks who keep the strictest definition” of the vegan diet, as explained by Reese. Additionally, all smoothies at Swirl in Upper Usdan are now vegan as the location has made a switch to oat milk for its health benefits and its lesser impact on the environment as compared to cow’s milk. Lower Usdan also features vegan pizzas daily at lunch as well as vegan yogurts and desserts. 

Other dietary restrictions are also important to Reese and other members of the dining staff. Reese is attempting to get a focus group of students with food allergies together to meet and discuss their experiences with dining on campus as students with allergies. Reese states that “it’s always helpful for me to hear it first hand and pass that onto the team. Our team really does take student feedback very seriously and very personally so any feedback that gets shared, we make sure that we make whatever changes are necessary.” Reese emphasized the importance of this feedback, saying that “it’s sort of cliche to say, but we want to treat all students here like they are our own kids, we want to make sure everybody gets what they need.” Additionally, Reese regularly reviews the menu with the dining team to make sure all dietary restrictions are accounted for. While the Simple Servings station at Lower Usdan and Sherman is the home for allergen-free food, Reese also discussed the increased efforts of the dining staff to find alternative recipes to add allergen-free options to other stations in the dining halls. If you are interested in joining the focus group on dining with food allergies at Brandeis keep an eye out for QR codes posted at Simple Servings stations. 

Recent dining initiatives have included featuring local food sources such as apples and cranberries in the dining halls. “I’m really passionate about bringing local food and local producers of food to the dining hall, I am working with the team to do more of that as well,” Reese stated. On top of traditional benefits of supporting local agriculture, Reese mentioned “I think that bringing food closer to students is really important and can really help students feel like they have a better sense of community while they’re in school.” These events also focus on specific health benefits of the local ingredients they feature and show the variety of different dishes that can be made from them. 

On the topic of healthy and well-balanced options in the dining halls, Reese pointed to the Simple Servings section. “Simple servings is our flagship area for doing balanced meals for students with dietary restrictions. It is by design meant to be a balanced meal where you get a protein, a vegetable and a starch, and it is pre-portioned for a reason: to keep it safe for students with food allergies and so that we know it is a complete and balanced meal.” Reese stated that the Simple Servings section gets an “extra level of scrutiny” when it comes to being a balanced meal source. Reese also mentioned that unfortunately this station is unable to serve plant-based protein sources as most of them contain one of the top allergens that the station avoids, but other areas of the dining halls serve plant-based proteins on menu rotation. 

Recently the dining halls have also cut back on their amount of beef for health reasons and as a move to focus on increased sustainability in on-campus dining. Reese explained that beef is high in saturated fats and has been linked to heart disease when consumed in high amounts. “Also, the production of beef is a pretty huge contributor to greenhouse gases and our carbon footprint,” Reese mentioned. Brandeis University has been able to cut its food carbon footprint by 21 percent since last fall by reducing beef consumption and increasing usage of plant-based protein sources. 

Nolan Reese’s overall goals for his work with Brandeis dining are hopeful, and he believes his work so far has been beneficial for the community. “Of course my goal is to continue to work with students who have food allergies and dietary needs and just make sure that we are providing as many options and accommodations as possible,” Reese explained. He also hopes to help any students feel more comfortable dining at Brandeis. “I’ll offer any amount of meetings or personal tours,” he stated, “I’ve taken students into the kitchen before to actually show them what equipment we are using and how the food is getting prepared. Sometimes that really helps to put students at ease.” Reese also emphasized the importance of Brandeis dining’s sustainability initiatives. “I think it’s really important that we do as much as we can because of the footprint that we have in terms of how many meals we serve. We have the ability to move the needle a lot when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change.” Brandeis dining is a part of the Cool Food Pledge, with a goal to reduce the carbon footprint associated with the dining halls by 25 percent, and according to Reese, it is well on its way to achieving that. Reese’s hope of supporting local agriculture and helping students feel at home through this also aims to assist the sustainability goal. 

Nolan Reese also utilizes his time at work to enjoy the food he focuses on. In the interview with The Hoot he described a few of his favorite places to eat in the dining halls, including the pho from Lemongrass, the sunshine bowl station, sushi from the kosher side of Sherman and Simple Servings. While looking out for Reese enjoying the spoils of his efforts, be sure to watch for any new dining initiatives by following Brandeis Dining on instagram @brandeis_dining. Reese is hoping to work more with the food pantry on campus, FRESH, to provide potential meal donations in the future. He is also featuring Nutrition Bites events, which he describes as “bite sized nutrition info with a snack.” The next of these events will be on Friday, Nov. 19 in Upper Usdan where Reese will be doing smoothie sampling with students and explaining the health benefits of fresh fruit.

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