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Who Chooses the Caf Food?

For students who have dietary restrictions — whether you have allergies, you’re vegan, diebetic or just picky — eating at PLNU’s dining hall may seem like a maze of cans and cannots. 

A limited selection is one concern that many students have. Sophomore biology major Kaia Harry cannot eat many foods for health reasons. She says while the cafeteria does a good job of having a protein, a grain and a vegetable, the meals become repetitive as that same combination keeps circulating. 

“All I can eat is simple servings and the salad bar, so when that’s the only place you can eat at, it can feel very limiting, whereas people without tolerances tend to have a second or third option for their meal,” Harry said.  

Simple servings is a food station free of the top eight allergens. According to Tim Fessler, general manager for Sodexo at PLNU, the top eight allergens comprise basically 90% of all food allergies. “We have a special station back here in the kitchen that’s only allowed to have simple serving ingredients, different cutting boards, utensils, serving pans. We even have two ovens designated for allergy-free production, a different cook and we serve out in front from a defined station.” 

For sophomore international development major Deborah Jimenez, vegetarian options varies on the day. 

“I feel like the caf does provide back-up plans,” Jimenez said. “So if they don’t have any good options for me, I can always get a salad or go to the vegan bar or eat a quesadilla, but I find myself having to use that back up plan often.”

With serving food to thousands of students each week, it can be difficult to foresee how every need can be met. But what is the actual process of creating the menu? Fessler said the menus are dependent on the size and region of the school. 

“As far as the university size and makeup, ours versus a very large university would have a different menu set up,” Fessler said.

According to Guadalupe Martinez, unit clerk for Sodexo at PLNU, the menus are put together by Sodexo from a very large database of tested recipes and sent to the school two to three weeks in advance. There is a university segment within the company, Martinez said, which creates different menus for different types of schools. 

“When [Sodexo] make[s] the menu we get, they send it to us just a couple weeks in advance and from there you have to finesse,” Martinez said. Finessing, she said, is looking at a menu with recipes that either don’t work or need to be created and then fitting it with the clients needs and wants. “For example, if your menu is given to you with no vegan options — the vegan bar [at PLNU] isn’t given to us — we create that, and that’s part of finessing,” she said.

As for how the needs of the students are heard, Martinez said, “Sometimes it’s comment cards or emails, and sometimes it’s the research and development the company already has done — as in, these are the trends we think are coming in.” 

Something especially helpful for Harry was the comment cards, located by the scanning machine in the front of the dining hall. “They respond quickly and to you personally, and it’s nice to see that when you make a comment, they make a change,” she said. 

Harry also says that meeting with the nutrition coach was helpful in maintaining a diet plan within the bounds of what the cafeteria has to offer.

According to Fessler, from 12 p.m.–2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, dietician Carrie Gunn will be in the dining hall to answer any questions students have. 

“She sits out on one of those high bar tables, she has a big sign in front of her, and it says nutrition coach,” Fessler said, “So if anybody has questions about what they can, cannot, or should, should not eat when it comes to nutrition or allergens or anything else. We’d want everybody to make comments to her, and then she’ll review all of those requests everyday with me.” Martinez said before this year, Gunn had only been available by appointment downstairs in the Wellness Center.

Harry recommends that others who are having a hard time utilizing the resources available to them and not be afraid to ask. “They’re willing to help you, you just need to communicate,” she said.