While MSU educates nearly 45,000 students per year, the university’s cafeterias feed approximately 150 times as many mouths.
MSU feeds approximately six million people each year, nearly 25,000 people per day, said Associate Director of Residential Dining Bruce Haskell.
A student goes through the salad bar in Yakeley's cafeteria (photo credit: Emily Lawler).
Many students first view the massive cafeterias as an endless array of options, putting the home cooked dinner table to shame. Others notice the dangers of overeating or contamination often associated with feeding such large numbers of people.
“There were more choices than I expected there would be, so it was exciting eating in the dorms at first, but getting sick my freshman year made me aware of the less appealing side to dorm food,” said biosystems engineering sophomore Matt Crowder.
Crowder was one of 29 MSU students affected by the E. Coli outbreak in East Complex in fall 2008 from a commercial lettuce contamination.
“I would not wish E. coli on my worst enemy,” he said. “It was the worst sickness I’ve ever had.”
MSU division of residential and hospitality services collaborating with the Ingham County Health Department reacted immediately to the outbreak, pulling together all infected students to work on determining the source of the contamination.
“I spent five days in the hospital, and the health department visited me there to interview me about exactly what I ate for the last week,” Crowder said.
MSU’s response to the E. coli outbreak was crucial; the university immediately informed students through e-mail and provided updates on their website.
“We took every precaution,” Haskell said. “We even pulled turkey because many of the sick students said they had eaten turkey sandwiches with lettuce. We went through a lot of testing looking for a common thread.”
The Detroit-based vendor, Aunt Mid’s Produce Company, was eventually identified as the source of the outbreak.
“I first became aware of the E. coli outbreak on Sept. 15, and we did not reintroduce lettuce from a different company until Nov. 11,” Haskell said.
Although it was the first MSU residence hall contamination in 30 years, the contamination was covered nationally in the days following the outbreak.
“We took a big hit on that even though E. coli was happening all over the country, but the whole experience taught us a lot so when the Norovirus hit in April we were prepared,” Haskell said.
Norovirus, the second outbreak of the academic year, hit Shaw Hall on Apr. 1. Approximately 30 students were hospitalized with Norovirus symptoms.
“Norovirus wasn’t foodborne, but to be safe we switched to full service of most every item to prevent cross contamination with students in Shaw and installed hand sanitizer dispensers,” Haskell said. “We provided sick packets to residents so they wouldn’t have to leave their rooms; we were just taking care of our residents, really just doing our jobs.”
The campus cafeteria system had two bacteria breakouts in the 2008-2009 school year (photo credit: Emily Lawler).
As an effect of the two recent dorm-related illnesses on campus, students often relate bulk foods to dangers and recalls. According to MSU food science professor Elliot Ryser, cafeteria food served in bulk is no more likely to be contaminated than any other food source.
“When feeding a large number of people it is easier to notice contamination,” Ryser says. “If 400 people eat potato salad in a cafeteria, you can see the outbreak, but if 400 people buy potato salad at a grocery store and scatter and serve it to people in their homes, then it’s harder to tell where the contamination came from.”
While bulk food is not more susceptible to contamination, it is easier to detect when contaminations do occur, allowing for action to control the problem. MSU has been known to react quickly when problems do occur.
“We live in a day in age where there are occasionally recalls and we follow very strict protocols on what to do if they occur,” said Joe Petroff, MSU residential and hospitality occupational health and safety officer.
Preventing outbreaks starts with the training and enforcement of food handling procedure.
“Before the food is put out it is as safe as any other source of food; it becomes dangerous when it sits out and is handled,” Ryser said.
MSU follows the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s food codes for food storage and handling and are inspected regularly. All MSU food service employees go through an extensive training when they are hired as well as an annual recertification, said Petroff, who is responsible for training residential employees.
“All employees go through a significant training to learn how to handle food and keep things clean and safe. The staff is well-informed not to come to work if they show any sings at all of illness and are not penalized for that,” he said.
While food contamination is a main concern of students and staff, cafeteria food safety also encompasses the sustenance of the menus and nutritional value of the food offered in the MSU cafeterias is continually developing.
“Studies that I have done have shown students eat healthier in the residence halls than when living in off campus,” said Sharon Hoerr, a food science and human nutrition professor. “It is very possible to eat very healthfully in the residence halls; people just need to make some choices.”
While the cafeterias offer healthy options, the options force students to make difficult decisions regarding maintaining a healthy diet.
“Understanding what is healthy helped me have a balanced plate while my friends had entire plates of mac and cheese with Cheetos on the side,” said Nicole Goldman, a food science senior and former president of the Food Science Club. “My plate was always balanced, and the dorms make that easy with so many choices like the large salad bars with lots of fruits and veggies.”
The 13 MSU dinning halls aim to provide healthy options as well as the typical college cafeteria staples.
“People say that want to eat healthy but burgers and pizza still rule, so healthy is a hard thing to nail down; it is always different what people consider healthy,” Haskell said. “People acquaint healthy with fresh, so we have a lot of made to order food.”
The cafeterias follow the American Cancer Society’s “The New American Plate” as a nutritional tool and aim to buy local fresh food including entirely Michigan grown apples and are working towards Michigan meat products and more fresh than frozen vegetables.
“I like that you can see people making the food, and it’s not in a back room somewhere; everyone can see it, so that makes you feel more comfortable about what you’re eating,” Crowder said.
While there are healthy options, making the nutritious choice can seem daunting. Maintaining a healthy diet while eating in cafeterias has less to do with what you put on your plate and more with how much of it, Hoerr said. Controlling potions can be difficult in the cafeteria setting, but portion size is crucial for a healthy lifestyle.
“Portion size and eating rate are most important; anything in access causes serious problems,” she said. “With unlimited service there is a risk of over eating since students feel they need to eat their money’s worth.”
Whether they frequented the soft-serve ice cream or stuck to the salad bar, most students agree the convenience of prepared meals anytime of the day is missed once they shift to off campus living.
“Living off campus I definitely miss the dorm food but less for its quality and more for its convenience,” Goldman said. “I liked that there was a wide variety of foods available to me at any time in the day because sometimes I’m just too tired or busy to cook.”
Tips for Staying Hot and Healthy While Eating Dorm Food from Food Science and Human Nutrition Professor Sharron Hoerr:
1) Slow it Down and enjoy it: “Eating slowly helps, try to take at least 20 min to finish meal,” she said.
2) Good-bye Trays: While many cafeterias are going trayless, even if yours is not choose not to use one to help control your potions. “Going trayless helps because can only eat what you can carry.”
3) Save the best for last: “If you eat your veggies and fruit first you are less likely to overeat.”
4) Slow down with the Cheese: “I notice that cheese is something that students love to use and using it as more of a flavoring agent rather than something you’re going to fill up on would be smart since it has so many calories.”