Meet the Meal: surveys, student feedback, and vocal minorities

Harvard University Dining Services runs a complex operation. In this web series, the Food Literacy Project will be interviewing different members of the Harvard University Dining Services, with one primary goal: provide more transparency in how food reaches your plate in an dining service.


Eliot Dining Hall, Radcliffe Archives

Every semester, HUDS sends out a survey to the whole residential population. Most students are on the meal plan – so it serves students to fill out the survey and make their preferences heard. The survey offers a benchmark of how we’re doing, but it also provides us a rough estimate of the percentage of vegetarians/vegans, helps contextualize the relative importance of sustainability for students, and gives students a chance to request particular dishes or ingredients.

How does Harvard eat, right now?

As of the fall 2012 survey, students are 6.5% vegetarian and 1% vegan, with plenty of students with particular dietary preferences (no red meat, for instance). How important is health/nutrition, sustainability, and social/ethical decisions to students? Here’s a bit of data pulled out.

Fall 2012 House-By-House.xls

Find all the results of the fall 2012 survey.

The Food Literacy Project talked with Crista Martin, HUDS’ director of marketing and communications, on how the survey questions get developed and what they show about Harvard eating habits & preferences.

FLP: How do you develop the survey questions? Who has input?

We ask all the managers to send in any questions that they think should be answered and we ask questions to hone in on what we’ve been hearing in a more anecdotal way. We also have basic questions that we ask every time to monitor our performance.

FLP: How have comments shifted over the years? Are there certain topics that students always ask for?

It’s like being on the beach and watching the waves come in. Right now, there’s an interest in seafood that has lasted a few years. It takes us a while to address something, so we’re working on seafood sustainability now.  Some things students always ask for: avocados!

There have been times we have done a survey and we’ve been really off the mark. But for the past few years, it’s just been minor infractions. This year, something that amazed me was monitoring the impact of our new menu cards on people’s understanding of food. The increased information on food sources and ingredients positively influenced how students view the health of our food. Another health related change — sodium. Although we reduced the sodium in all of our soup by 25%, we got comments about reducing sodium further — are our palates changing?

FLP: Students sometimes ask for things that they don’t actually want to eat. What’s going on there? Can you give me some examples?

What people say and what people do are different. It’s a universal challenge. We all have an idealist view that if something is available, we’ll do it. That’s not always the case. But it is important to recognize the desire — for instance, many students ask for healthy options.

FLP: Do comments change as national trends pop-up?

Right now, we’re in the midst of an Indian food trend — we’re still waiting to see what happens with that. We get far fewer requests for sushi than before.

Thanks, Crista, for your time and information!

Here’s a spread of some recent surveys, if you’d like to look for trends yourself.

Fall 2012 HUDS survey results

Spring 2012 HUDS survey results

Fall 2011 HUDS survey results

Spring 2009 HUDS survey results

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