"Fancy food": An open letter to President Obama

John Cornyn FCSI pens an open letter to President Barack Obama in response to his remarks about college dining programs serving “fancy food” and causing financial trouble for students

Dear President Obama,

I am a foodservice management and operations consultant who has been involved with higher education foodservice since I was admitted to Oklahoma State University’s hotel and restaurant administration program in 1963. Over that time period, I have watched college and university foodservice evolve from what you at Occidental College and the vast majority of students on other campuses during that time frame experienced. The food was often inexpertly prepared and placed into hot and cold warming units at least four hours in advance of the starting service time and was alternatively referred to as “roast beast, sautéed road kill, Gravy Train” (a dog food brand) and other terms not suitable for public discourse.

My purpose in writing to you today is to vigorously defend what I believe is a jaundiced perspective on college and university foodservice programs via your assessment that they are all “gourmet”. Perhaps, what you perceive as “gourmet” is, in fact, expertly prepared and ethnically authentic foods that are commonly served in a variety of countries that many students, your daughters included, have been fortunate enough to visit.

Certainly in the past, the dining facilities themselves were salutes to the use of stainless steel, linoleum floors and prison-quality wooden tables and chairs. This concept was originally called “all-you-can-eat”, which, in retrospect, was a veiled challenge to find the non-athlete who could actually consume as much food as possible and still participate in their chosen sport, much less, live to tell about it. The very clear message was eat and go elsewhere as the ambiance and décor were not conducive to anything else.

From there, many college and university foodservice programs found temporary salvation in fast food-style branding every food concept possible as a means to do away with the all-you-can-eat approach. I believe references to the “Freshman 15” and the resultant complaints from parents caused many campus dining services directors to rethink the whole concept of food and how it can and should support the academic mission. They quickly returned to what is now correctly referred to as “all-you-care-to-eat” and stepped back to consider the possibilities of combining the kitchen and service area into display or action stations where trained chefs used fresh ingredients to prepare tasty, not gourmet, food selections.

I assume that you and Mrs. Obama have had more than one conversation about her challenges in implementing critical menu and food content changes to the National School Nutrition Program. I also suspect that your suggestion that “fancy fitness centers” are not needed, defies the long-held doctrine that exercise, no matter what it is or where it takes place, is one solid way to combat obesity and debilitating illnesses that are driving healthcare costs into an unsustainable economic crisis. When visiting campuses now, or in the immediate future with your daughters, I respectfully request that you step back and consider the following questions related to most, if not all, college and university dining programs:

• Does offering good, freshly prepared food using locally sourced ingredients automatically equate to “gourmet”?

• If a dining program has enthusiastically embraced a farm-to-fork program (a concept that I believe your administration has aggressively supported), would this not contribute to your daughters’ and everyone else’s out-of-classroom education?

• With respect to the previous point, would not meeting the farmers in the dining hall, or better yet, at their farms, also provide an enhanced educational experience about food, and more importantly, its impact on the global environment and economies?

• Does having state-of-the-art technology via electronic menu boards and instant access to valuable nutrition and recipe ingredients (especially for those students with personal dietary or religious restrictions) automatically imply a gourmet-style dining facility?

Finally, the vast majority of higher education administrators we have met have been unanimous in wanting their dining program to contribute to campus life quality so as to promote face-to-face socialisation within their ethnically and economically diverse campus communities. In this day and age when electronic communication jargon is rapidly changing (some would argue, destroying) the English language, should colleges and universities not do their utmost to use food and modern, up-to-date and comfortable facilities to promote socialisation? Furthermore, is there any better way to educate students about topics such as social justice, global warming, sustainability, organics, carbon footprints, humane treatment of animals and the impact of drugs and hormones in the food they eat?




John Cornyn FCSI, vice president, Brailsford & Dunlavey

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