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March 16, 1998

UCSC food service asks the experts to dish up advice

As the camera rolls, the food-testing team samples a potential menu item.

By Barbara McKenna

Many of us can think back to the cafeterias from our college days when the surprise in "Tuna Surprise" was that it was considered edible and when wilted iceberg lettuce and macaroni salad constituted a salad bar.

Culinary adventurers have it better these days in college dining halls, especially at UCSC where, for example, students recently had the difficult task of choosing between ginger-barbecued chicken or seafood Tuscany with vegetables in a sun-dried tomato sauce, among other things.

The campus contracts with Marriott Educational Services (soon to be called Sodexo/Marriott Alliance) to run its six dining halls, which have a reputation for offering broad menus (including daily vegan entrees) and good hours.

One thing that has made a real difference in the quality of food at UCSC is the cadre of Food Service Advisers, or FSAs. The FSAs are students who are paid to serve as consultants and surveyors on the quality of the cafeteria food and service. This includes taste-testing new foods, surveying fellow diners, and eating in the dining halls themselves.

When the group gathered at the College Eight-Oakes College Dining Hall for its monthly meeting last month, Media Services staff were on hand to film the meeting. Once edited, the film will be screened at the upcoming meeting of the Western Association of Colleges and Universities, according to Elise Levinson, assistant director of housing at UCSC. UCSC is using the film to show other colleges how the FSA program works.

As the cameras rolled, the FSAs, campus-based Marriott managers, and UCSC staff discussed surveys, student feedback, and menus and then sampled Thai noodles in a red curry sauce (good but too spicy, the group decided).

"As far as we know there is not another program like this in the country," Levinson said. "Many colleges have students who volunteer for this work, but as far as we know, none that are paid," she said, noting that the paid students are effective because they take their jobs seriously.

"We've made dramatic changes based on feedback from the FSAs," said Lee Reiff, the UCSC-based marketing manager for Marriott. Among the changes made in response to student feedback:

The dining halls are open to faculty, staff, and the general public. The cost for an all-you-can-eat meal is $4.25 for breakfast, $5.25 for lunch, and $6.50 for dinner.

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