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New College of the University of South Florida, a small, prestigious state honors college in Sarasota, Florida, had some things to smile about when The Princeton Review published its 1997 Student Advantage Guide to the Best 310 Colleges. New College made the lists for “most politically active” and “best dorms.” But the same guidebook also gave New College the top spot for “worst food.”

Even The Princeton Review’s own publishers have admitted that the guide’s rankings are based on an “unscientific survey” of current students at the colleges, but a bad review in the popular guidebook still has national exposure. Dave Glaser, coordinator of public affairs for New College, says the general consensus at the time of the ranking was that “the large number of very vocal vegetarians on campus” had a lot to do with the low food rating because they had been complaining that foodservice didn’t cater to their dietary requirements.

The bad publicity didn’t stop with the annual guide. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran a follow-up story on the “worst-grub honor” headlined “Dieting No Sweat at New College.” Glaser says a local television station crew filmed a blind taste test on campus in which a plate of food from the local hospital’s cafeteria and a plate of food from the New College dining room were subjected to student taste tests. The hospital plate won.

“In all honesty, we had a lot of fun with it when it happened,” says Glaser. “There were posters and jokes and a lot of talk among the students in the dining room. The only one who definitely wasn’t laughing was the representative from Marriott.”

In response, the staff at the contracted foodservice, now Sodexho Marriott, went to work with an aggressive effort to open lines of communication with the students and to make a major menu commitment to vegetarian items. They were rewarded when the next year’s edition of the annual Princeton Review guide noted that “the foodservice is rapidly improving (at New College) but still has a way to go.”

Jerry Dixon, Sodexho Marriott’s foodservice director at New College for the past 18 months, has immersed himself in the restrictions, recipes, and variations of the vegetarian movement. Key to his success in turning the program around is a student vegan consultant. The first to fill the position was “the student who asked me the most detailed questions,” he says. The student consultant is paid “slightly more than minimum wage” for several hours each week spent consulting with the cooks and Dixon on the vegetarian menu.

“We needed to communicate with the students,” says Dixon, “because the requirements on the different vegetarian diets can be very complicated. We make a real effort to let them know everything that is in our food.”

The student consultant has access to all the recipes, access to the cooks, and access to the production area and ingredient room. He/she is in charge of writing the ingredient cards that are placed at each serving line station. The cards list the major ingredients as well as the ingredients within the ingredients. Some of the cards are 40 items long.

“I know more about vegetarians than ever before but even I don’t know as much as the students,” admits Dixon. “They know more about the vegetarian food supply than any corporate procurement person. They can tell me when there is going to be a shortage of soy milk because of a strike someplace in the world. Statistically 50% or more of our students consider themselves vegetarians but there are many varieties. We’ve got the ovo-lacto who eat eggs but no dairy, the traditional vegetarian who eats no meat but is fine with dairy, some who eat no sugar because it is refined and some who won’t eat honey because of the enslavement of the honey bee.”

Of the five entrées on the menu at lunch and dinner, two are regular meat items and three are vegetarian. Of the three, one contains cheese and one a protein source.

“The recipes are more labor intensive because it takes time to chop and dice fresh vegetables and they often require more ingredients to get the taste the kids want,” says Dixon. “We solicited recipes from students—including a curried sweet potato and lentil stew—and some from Sodexho Marriott files, like a curried bulgur wheat entrée. The student consultant is there when we are developing recipes to let us know that if we include a particular ingredient, more people won’t be able to eat it.”