Home Posts tagged UMass Dining
Daily News

AMHERST — UMass Dining will host its 13th annual Dash ‘n’ Dine 5K race on Saturday, April 20 to support the Amherst Survival Center.

The Dash ‘n’ Dine 5K is a campus tradition that exemplifies UMass Dining’s mission to create community through food. Over the past 12 years, UMass Dining has been able to raise over $60,000 for the Amherst Survival Center.

The day begins at 9 a.m. with check-in at the Southwest Horseshoe, followed at 10 a.m. by a free fun run for children age 8 and younger. The race begins at 11 a.m., followed by an award ceremony at 11:30 a.m. and lunch at noon in the Berkshire Dining Commons.

This annual event is for people of all ages and abilities. The race fee is $10 for all Five College undergraduate and graduate students, $20 for UMass Amherst faculty and staff, and $25 for the general public. Children age 8 and under are free. The race fee includes registration and a complimentary meal at the university’s award-winning dining facilities in the Hampshire and Berkshire Dining Commons.

To register or make a donation, visit runumass.com. Walk-up registration is available on race day. Event sponsors include WWLP-TV and Rock 102.

Cover Story

The Power of Food

Leaders of the team at UMass Dining, from left, Garett DiStefano, Chris Howland, Ken Toong, and Alex Ong.

Leaders of the team at UMass Dining, from left, Garett DiStefano, Chris Howland, Ken Toong, and Alex Ong.


Chris Howland says the discussions with the vendor started several weeks ago. And they continued on an almost daily basis right up until the end of last month, covering a variety of issues, from price to delivery strategy.

That’s what it takes to ensure that 15,000 or so lobsters are delivered on time, and are fresh and still kicking, said Howland, director of Procurement, Logistics and Special Projects for Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst, the parent department for what is now, and has long been, the university’s industry-leading Dining Services.

“It’s quite the process, but we have it down to a science,” he told BusinessWest. “We partner with a vendor in Boston that we source a lot of our seafood from. We’re really comfortable with them and confident that they can supply us with these lobsters in time; they get their final order at 4 a.m., they drive it up here in two tractor trailers, and deliver to all four dining commons by 10. So these are going to be some of the freshest lobsters you’re ever going to see — it’s from the sea to the table, essentially.”

The lobsters are now the centerpiece, but certainly not the only piece, of ‘All Treats, No Tricks’ steak and lobster night, a coveted Halloween tradition at UMass Amherst for nearly 25 years now. It is easily the most anticipated day on campus, food-wise, one that draws not only the students but a few hundred parents, who smartly choose that day for a visit.

There are also, as the name suggests, steaks, Halloween costumes, pumpkin-carving contests, roving magicians, and other entertainment that make this a special night indeed. In fact, when COVID got in the way of things in the fall of 2021, when there only 1,500 students on campus, special arrangements were made for the senior class to enjoy steak and lobster in the spring, so they wouldn’t miss out.

“The days of saying ‘we’re going to serve a banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich, and put a baguette out there, some mayo, put some ham in there, and call it a banh mi’ … those days are gone; you’ll never get away with it.”

Fittingly, steak and lobster night was the door by which Howland and other leaders at UMass Dining began to answer the question posed by BusinessWest — ‘just how important is food on a college campus, and especially this campus?’

Using two words, because that’s all he needed, Garett DiStefano, director of Dining Services, said simply, “it’s huge.”

Elaborating, he said that, beyond the obvious — sustenance and nutrition — food is a connector; it connects students to family, tradition, holidays, their home countries, and more. Meanwhile, food contributes to performance — not just athletic performance, but mental acuity, he noted, as well as mental health, comfort, and a sense of belonging on a campus with 25,000 students.

Overall, food can greatly impact the student experience — at a time when enrollment is an issue for many schools — thus making it easier to attract and retain students, he went on.

Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises, agreed.

“Food on a college campus is more important than ever before,” he said, noting that a survey revealed that 70% of the students who chose UMass said food was a factor in their decision, and 83% said food contributed positively to their overall experience at the school.

But — and this is a big but — food can only do all that if it tastes good and it’s authentic (that’s a word you’ll read many times in this article), said Toong, adding that these are just two of the ingredients, and there are many, that go into whether a school’s dining services are considered successful, let alone the top-rated program in the country according to the Princeton Review, which UMass Amherst has been for seven years running now — eight if you count 2021, when the competition was altered somewhat because of COVID.

Other factors include everything from sourcing and buying local to technology, such as an app that not only tells students what’s on the menu, but the ingredients being used (vital information at a time when so many have food allergies); from sustainability and impressively low amounts of food waste\ to globally inspired cuisine — 36% of the students at UMass are international.

But maybe the biggest ingredient, said DiStefano, is the ability to listen to what the students, who deliver feedback in a candid fashion, are saying, and respond in ways that perpetuate and build upon what he called a “culture of excellence” driven by the large and diverse team at UMass Dining.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with several members of that team, not so much about all the awards they’ve won, although that’s part of it, but what goes into those awards, and how all those ingredients are embedded into the culture of what can only be called an institution on the campus.


On a Roll

When asked for his definition of ‘authentic,’ Alex Ong, director of Culinary Excellence at UMass Dining, broke into a smile, indicating that he enjoys answering that question.

He started by saying the university boasts students from across the country and around the world. When an operation like UMass Dining puts dishes from different regions and different countries on the menu, students from those places know what’s real and what isn’t, Ong explained, adding, with some conviction in his voice, that the team he leads can’t, and won’t, even try to present anything approaching a reasonable facsimile.

“The days of saying ‘we’re going to serve a banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich, and put a baguette out there, some mayo, put some ham in there, and call it a banh mi’ … those days are gone; you’ll never get away with it,” he said. “If you say it’s a banh mi, it better be a banh mi, starting with the bread — it has to be a Vietnamese-style roll, and it has to be toasted, so when you’re done, all you have on your shirt are tiny little crumbs.”

DiStefano agreed. “We have students from all around the world who know what a real banh mi is or what a particular dish from Northern China should look like and taste like,” he said. “And they’re going to hold us accountable. Chef Alex and his team are very critical and make sure that what you see is what you get and it’s 100% true to form.”

This dedication to authenticity is critically important at a time when more than a third of the students are international and that number continues to edge higher, said DiStefano, noting that the school is seeing more students from Southeast Asia and some of the Latin countries, among other spots on the globe. And they are among the 32 ‘student ambassadors’ that meet with the team at UMass Dining every three weeks to provide feedback and help shape the menus for the weeks and months to come.

These ambassadors, and students in general, can be (and usually are) brutally honest, said Ong, adding that this candid feedback helps drive continuous improvement.

“Sometimes, we walk out of the ambassadors meeting and say, ‘we just got rolled,’” he told BusinessWest. “But we know that we have to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding and stay true to our mission.”

Dedication to authenticity, as well as the ability to listen and respond to the ambassadors and the rest of the student body through a number of feedback channels has enabled UMass Dining to do something difficult — soar to the top of the Princeton Review’s ‘Best Campus Food’ List — and then do something even more difficult: establish seemingly permanent residency there.

In doing so, the school has bested an intriguing mix of public and mostly private schools. Indeed, the top 10 in the 2023 rankings includes an Ivy League school, Cornell; some prestigious private institutions such as Bowdoin and Vanderbilt; and a few other public schools, including Virginia Tech and Kansas State.

There are many other schools that have cracked the top 25 in recent years, said DiStefano, and many of them — as well as institutions that would like to earn such a ranking — have sent delegations, some of them quite large, to UMass Amherst to watch and learn from the team that has set the standard. For example, a large contingency from Williams College recently came for a comprehensive, day-long training exercise.

“The trips are informative, but it’s also about building connections and building relationships, and it’s very important for us to do that. And in many cases, it can humble you — they’re doing a phenomenal job, too, so you want to learn and see how you can do better.”

Meanwhile, the UMass Dining team visits other schools on a fairly regular basis, understanding that to achieve and sustain excellence requires continuous learning and adopting best practices.

“We’ve been to UCLA, Berkeley, Yale, the Ohio State, and many others,” he said. “The trips are informative, but it’s also about building connections and building relationships, and it’s very important for us to do that. And in many cases, it can humble you — they’re doing a phenomenal job, too, so you want to learn and see how you can do better.”


Food for Thought

As he and the others talked about what makes the UMass program successful, and able to stay at the top of the rankings, DiStefano said the biggest ingredients are teamwork and commitment to excellence and the many constituencies fed by UMass Dining, and especially the students.

“You have to serve quality food, authentic food, every day, consistently — it’s as simple as that,” he explained. “The power of the chef is more important than anything, and Chef Alex and the culinary team here are what makes the engine go every single day.

“You have a consistent group of staff here who truly care about the students and the student population,” he went on. “You have a reflexive staff who are some of the diverse group of people we have — we have 23 different languages that are spoken in our dining commons, and 60% of our staff are first-generation residents, so they bring a wonderful flair of authenticity and passion for the university as well as the food they serve, and that reflects our culture.”

Ong agreed. “We empower our staff to tell a story through food because they represent the United Nations of different ethnicities that we serve; they bring a lot of authentic flavors and share them with our students.”

But, as noted earlier, there are many factors that play into a successful program beyond delicious, authentic food, said Toong, listing everything from efforts to reduce waste to initiatives to buy local whenever possible, to efforts to utilize technology and research to further enhance the student experience — and even academic performance.

He said the program uses cell-phone communication and dining apps to not only tell the UMass Dining story, but also gather information from students. There are also ordering kiosks to help shorten the lines in the dining commons, as well as collaborative efforts with the School of Nutrition on studies to determine how diet and academic performance might be related.

Students find plenty of healthy, authentic choices at the Worcester Commons

Students find plenty of healthy, authentic choices at the Worcester Commons, one of four dining commons on the UMass Amherst campus.
(Photo by Chuck Choi Photography)

“We’re looking at things like what foods might help someone perform better before a test or feel less anxious,” said DiStefano, adding that the department doesn’t simply measure such things — it also incorporates what is found into the dietary plan.

“And that’s where the power of the chef comes into play,” he said. “I can say, ‘eating more beans is going to be great for you,’ but it must taste good for the student to actually want to do it. That’s where the magic happens, and that’s where we start to really see change in diet behavior.”

With that, he referenced the vegetarian/vegan area in the Worcester Dining Commons. “I eat there pretty much every day, not because I’m a vegetarian or a vegan, but because the flavors are really good; there’s something about spinach cooked perfectly.”

Meanwhile, UMass Dining supports a number of local farms and orchards, including the UMass Student Farm, a 20-acre, certified, organic vegetable farm in nearby Sunderland that grows a variety of crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, broccoli, lettuce, and more.

“It’s a great program, they’re doing very well, and we certainly like to support them because it’s a quality product,” DiStefano said. “And it will help sustain the program for the future years.”

As for food waste, UMass Dining has a 6% rate of waste, while the average restaurant might have a 16% rate and a grocery store 35%.

Beyond the food, the technology, and the research, though, UMass Dining has put the accent on tradition, said those we spoke with. And steak and lobster night is just one of many.

Indeed, UMass Dining has put together programs for Vietnamese students, a special meal during Ramadan at 3 a.m. that drew more than 300 students, a traditional seder during Passover, and a program for Lunar New Year.

“For Lunar New Year, you may not be able to be with your family, but you can still celebrate it,” DiStefano said. “The same with Diwali [the Hindu festival of lights]; students here can get dressed up in traditional garb and celebrate Diwali with their friends here at UMass. These are just more examples of the incredible importance of food; we’re creating these experiences and building a community.”


Tall Tails

Getting back to steak and lobster night, Howland said that seafood vendor in Boston was probably getting tired of hearing from him as Halloween neared.

But there was far too much at stake (and steak) to leave any detail to chance for this all-important tradition.

Indeed, as he monitored social media in the days leading up to the big night, he grasped the importance of the event to not only students, but many of their parents as well.

“Our parents of students have their own Facebook group, and every parent was talking about the steak and lobster dinner,” he recalled, noting that he didn’t really need any reminders.

Such is the power of food on this college campus — and the growing legend of UMass Dining.




UMass Amherst graduates from a generation or two ago — and there are a great many still living and working in this region — will recall that the food served on campus was largely the subject of derision and ridicule.

Like the football team is now — although that’s another story for another day.

This one is about what has happened to UMass Dining over the past quarter-century or so. It has made the talk of bland, unimaginative food of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s the stuff of seemingly ancient history, which it is. And, like the school’s marching band, it has become a symbol of excellence and pride, and an inspiration to other schools and other programs at the state’s flagship university.

As this issue’s cover story notes, UMass Dining is on a winning streak for the ages. The program has made UMass Amherst the top school for campus dining for seven years running in the respected Princeton Review. But the story isn’t about the hardware — it’s about what it takes to win all that hardware.

And that’s a lengthy list — everything from quality food, obviously, to authenticity to comprehensive efforts to not only gather feedback from various constituencies, especially students, but listen and respond to that feedback in ways that yield continuous improvement and, yes, more top rankings in Princeton Review.

As anyone in business, or even professional or college sports, knows, getting to the top is one thing. Staying on top, especially when you’re sharing best practices with anyone who asks — which is what the team at UMass Dining does — is much more difficult.

Speaking of business, those working in just about every sector of the economy can take some invaluable lessons from UMass Dining, about everything from a commitment to excellence to what it means to serve a truly diverse audience and fully respect that diversity, to how to proactively respond to those who are being served.

What they do isn’t rocket science — they prepare and serve meals every day. But the attention to detail, the commitment to excellence, and the level of teamwork that goes into the day-to-day operations is extraordinary.

The dramatic change in operations — and quality — at UMass Amherst began with the arrival of Ken Toong, the executive director of Auxiliary Services at the university, which oversees the dining operation, in the late ’90s. He established a culture of excellence, maintained that culture of excellence, and embedded it into every operation and every meal served there — 8 million annually, by some estimates.

This is a story of teamwork and top-down commitment to doing not just a good job, but the best job possible, every single day.

In that respect, UMass Dining isn’t just a department at the university — one that has been the best in the nation for nearly a decade. It’s a model to be emulated.

Innovation and Startups

Cooking Up Sustainability

By Kailey Houle


UMass Amherst Dining is serving up a new dish. Sort of. It’s called sustainability.

The dining program, long ranked among the best in the country, if not the best, is adding a focus on foods and their carbon footprint to what has been a steady diet of information provided to students about how to make smart choices about what to eat each day.

Ken Toong

Ken Toong says that by serving more plant-based dishes, UMass Dining is helping students on campus reduce their carbon footprint.

UMass Amherst Dining is teaming up with MyEmissions, a food carbon-label company, to bring a sustainability factor to the table, an initiative that could be considered part of a broader, campus-wide focus on carbon footprints — and how to reduce them.

Indeed, in April, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy proposed a plan to be a net-carbon zero university by 2032. And a survey of UMass students conducted this spring shows 75% believing their food choices impact the environment, and 76% believing it is important to reduce their carbon footprint. But they didn’t know where to begin.

“We started incorporating kelp on the menu — talk about a superfood; it’s a carbon sink, meaning it puts carbon back into the atmosphere. We partnered with a group in Maine that works with off-season lobstermen to grow kelp, and it’s going really well. We’ve done research and development on it, and again, we’re educating students that not only is kelp a superfood for your health, but it’s also a climate superfood.”

Low-carbon dining — an experience UMass is striving to perfect — refers to making food choices that have low greenhouse gas emissions associated with their life cycle. Examples of low-carbon foods include nuts, soy products, local vegetables, and dairy alternatives; high- carbon foods include beef, lamb, cheese, chocolate, and coffee. To combat higher emissions UMass sources its high carbon foods locally, and all of the low-carbon foods offered are grown locally and, in some cases, on campus.

“My team and I researched the issue and we have partnered with MyEmissions,” said Kathy Wicks, director of Sustainability at UMass Amherst. “They analyze each recipe for its carbon footprint. So we export our recipe, they analyze it, and then they send it back to us so we can put it on the menu identifiers and on the app.”

Elaborating, Wicks said that such analysis involves giving a rating — A through E, with A being the highest, or best grade — to each individual recipe based on its carbon footprint. A carbon footprint, as it relates to food, is the amount of carbon emissions, methane, or carbon dioxide involved in the food’s production. It takes into account the life cycle of whatever one is measuring, its land use, processing, transportation, and packaging. UMass has been able to reduce some of its carbon emissions already by partnering with local farmers and facilities to feed their students.

MyEmissions has worked with European restaurants to help them reduce their carbon footprint, but UMass Amherst Dining is the first university program in the country to be introducing an initiative like this. And as an anchor institution in the region and a recognized leader and innovator among dining programs, UMass is looking to tell a story others will follow.

“Yeah it’s delightful that we did it first, but it’s a better feeling knowing we can help our students make a better choice,” said Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst, which oversees the dining program. “Food matters and I think this is an important thing for the UMass community.”

Wicks agreed, and noted that through this new initiative, the university hopes to better inform students about foods and their impact on the planet and perhaps inspire them to consider options — like kelp.

“We started incorporating kelp on the menu — talk about a superfood; it’s a carbon sink, meaning it puts carbon back into the atmosphere,” she explained. “We partnered with a group in Maine that works with off-season lobstermen to grow kelp, and it’s going really well. We’ve done research and development on it, and again, we’re educating students that not only is kelp a superfood for your health, but it’s also a climate superfood.”

Overall, plant-forward dining, and that includes kelp, helps to reduce the overall carbon footprint. Low-carbon foods are able to be grown, prepared, sourced, processed, and transported in ways that emit minimal greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Food production in the United States makes up 20% of overall greenhouse gasses and globally it’s about 30%. UMass Dining works with local fair-trade-certified farmers and rely on permaculture gardens to source their meals.

Kathy Wicks

Kathy Wicks says educating students on their food choices gives them the ability to take action to help the planet.

“We’ve been working with our local partners for a long time, we also work closely with companies around their practices and how they relate to sustainability,” Wicks said. “And this is a way we can help students practice everyday climate action with every food choice that they make.”

Wicks and others we spoke with stressed repeatedly that they are not trying to tell students what to eat. Rather, they are providing information that will help them make smart choices about what they might want to eat — information that goes beyond calories and ingredients and dives into a food’s overall impact on the planet

“We play a role in educating them on food literacy, but we also love to talk about food,” said Wicks. “We added this to the conversation because it is top of mind for so many people and the campus community as a whole.”

Carbon-use identifiers will be added to each menu, along with previous identifiers for allergies, ingredients, sustainability, plant-based, and locality.

“We have a very comprehensive menu system — we have identifiers for allergies, ingredients, and now they can assess it through the apps or on signs,” said Toong. “We just add it on the carbon calculator and put the rating on the menu.”

Toong said the Amherst campus is perhaps more diverse than ever, with many students, including those who are Asian, Latin, and Indian students seeking authentic cuisine that is mostly plant-based. More than 70% of the school’s menu items are already plant based, catering to vegetarians, vegans, and those with a more plant-driven diet.

“We’ve been working with our local partners for a long time, we also work closely with companies around their practices and how they relate to sustainability. And this is a way we can help students practice everyday climate action with every food choice that they make.”

“We know that plant-forward meals are going to be a trend; there is still meat, but smaller portions,” said Toong. “We only give three-to four-ounce red meat portions, and same thing with chicken. We’re selling more seafood and more plant-based dishes. This has really helped us make the decision to start the program.

“We’re not saying ‘don’t eat red meat,’ — we’re just suggesting smaller portion sizes,” he went on. “We don’t tell them what to eat — we provide them with information. But we want to promote more than just food, we want to promote culture and cuisine. Our goal is to work with students and the community to try to make the world a better place. We can do it by working together.”

Those we spoke with said the partnership with MyEmissions is merely another step in efforts to promote sustainability. They stressed the need to back up the information being provided with conversation about how to make smart choices.

“We’re not just going to put the information up there — we’re going to continue dialogue with our students about it and show them and give them tips that low-carbon dining is as easy as A, B, C,” said Wicks. “We’ve been dedicated to healthy, sustainable, delicious food for a long time. We always want to do more to enhance the student experience.

“We listen closely to what the students have to say,” she went on. “We listen closely to what they’re concerned about and what they are interested in and what their values are… the entire campus’ sustainability and the current issues with climate change are at the top of mind for everybody. So our expertise is food and customer service — that’s the area we want to do more. We know it has an impact on our environment.”

By making simple changes like trying out some new A-Rated dishes, anyone can help lower the carbon footprint — and those at UMass Dining know small changes like that can make a huge difference.

Daily News

AMHERST — Award-winning UMass Dining will hold an on-the-spot interview event on May 16 and 17. The event will run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Blue Wall, Campus Center, One Campus Center Way, UMass Amherst. 

Offering both full- and part-time positions, UMass Dining is in search of help in all areas including, but not limited to, culinary, warehouse, custodial, storekeeper, and supervisor positions.  

UMass Dining offers a variety of schedules, competitive salary and a comprehensive benefits package. For those looking to grow within the department, many career advancement opportunities are available. Attendees will be interviewed on site. 

Free parking will be available in the Campus Center garage for the duration of the event. A free meal ticket will also be provided for all attendees. For more information, email [email protected]or call (413) 545-2472. 

Daily News


AMHERST — University of Massachusetts Dining Services will host its 11th annual “UMass 5K Dash and Dine” on campus on April 9, at 9 a.m., after a two-year hiatus. The goal of the event is to promote health and wellness at the university while raising funds for The Amherst Survival Center (ASC). In total, UMass dining has been able to raise more than $50,000 for the Amherst Survival Center. 

The 5K features a USA Track and Field (USATF) certified course to runners, walkers and wheelchair participants. When race participants are finished, all are welcomed to have lunch at the award-winning dining commons on campus. 

“It’s fantastic to see the UMass Community come together for such a great cause,” said Ken Toong, Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises. “We’re a big believer of building community through food and this event is another shining example of this. I’m extremely proud of our team and what we are able to accomplish.”

The race fee is $10 for all UMass and Five-College students, $15 for UMass Amherst faculty and staff, and $20 for the general public. Children 8 years and under may participate for free. This race fee includes registration, and the complimentary meal at the Hampshire or Berkshire Dining Commons. Online registration ends at midnight on April 6. Walk-up registration is available on Race Day. 

To register for the event or make a donation, please visit RunUMass.com.

“We are so excited to see Dash and Dine return; this event is such a perfect fundraiser for the Center,” said Amherst Survival Center Executive Director, Lev Ben-Ezra. “It is all about community, everyone pitching in, and world class cooking A huge thank you to everyone who makes it possible and comes out to join. See you there.”