Head chef Bob Walden of Segundo dining commons and the Culinary Support Center shows off the meal display in the entryway of the commons. The display shows incoming diners what is being served and where to find it. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

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Originally posted on The Davis Enterprise 

Today’s UC Davis students indulge in worldwide cuisine with fresh ingredients — sometimes grown on campus — and a variety as vast as a Las Vegas buffet.

Segundo dining commons chef Bob Walden, who’s been at UCD for 22 years, admits he used to “buy what’s cheap and easy.” His philosophy changed, though, thanks to Linda Adams, director of sustainability and nutrition.

Adams demurred a bit, saying, “Bob is responsible for all the food we make in the Culinary Support Center (a central kitchen for many on-campus food providers) — soups, sauces, salads. Oftentimes it’s easy to buy something that’s pre-made,” Adams noted, “but the nutrient content in that is not good.”

This philosophy change, Walden said, put him and his team ahead of the curve on the farm-to-fork movement. Walden explained that about a decade ago, he knew a produce provider in the Sacramento area whom he approached about being the dining commons’ produce supplier, with an eye toward getting fruits and veggies from local farms. But the provider declined, saying it would be far too difficult to know what produce came from which farm.

Now, Walden said, it is required by produce providers to disclose the farms of origin for fruits and vegetables supplied to UCD. And the university’s Student Farm itself actually produced about 3,100 pounds of spaghetti squash, 2,800 pounds of butternut squash and 2,500 pounds of cabbage last year.

The UCD Student Farm became relevant to the dining commons in the past decade. Adams explained that before then, the Student Farm “wasn’t really growing volume like we need.” The farm runs a Community Supported Agriculture program, she said, “And they even had a waiting list for their CSA. But students happened to know that the produce (grown at the farm amounted to) more than was filling the boxes.”

So about 2006 or 2007, Adams said, “Students went to the farm and asked if they could purchase what was left over and use it for the dining commons. … It turned into something that seemed like, ‘Oh, that’s not worth it,’ to an award-winning program.”

The innovative thinking has paid off. Earlier this year, UCD’s food service was certified for Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership, or REAL, by the U.S. Healthful Food Council. It is only the second university in the United States to achieve this — Stanford is the other — and it is “a nationally recognized mark of excellence for food and food-service providers committed to holistic nutrition and environmental stewardship,” according to a news release.

Let’s eat
Meanwhile, during the pre-lunch rush on a Friday in early February, Segundo dining commons staff hustled around to prep for the students. There are predictable busy patterns that coincide with breaks between classes.

Walden explained that Segundo dining commons is rarely closed, with just a 45-minute break between breakfast and lunch, and two hours and 45 minutes between lunch and dinner. Those needing late-night sustenance can swing by until midnight.

Segundo — there are three dining commons facilities at UCD, one in each residence hall area — has been open for about 10 years now, Walden said. It’s set up somewhat like a mall food court, where each station has its own kitchen as opposed to a more industrial-style kitchen where everything is done in back.

Wandering through Segundo, the food-court description is accurate. In one area is Fresh Inspirations, a salad and sandwich bar — complete with a press to make paninis. The Blue Onion is the vegan area, next to Pacific Fusions, the Mongolian wok, which is the most popular station, Walden says. In fact, during this visit, a young man in line at the Mongolian wok already was holding a burrito and a hamburger. But he said he couldn’t resist the short line at his favorite station.

Long gone are the days when a college freshman sustains herself on bowls of Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms in avoidance of the dining commons “mystery meat.”

Impressively, not many students seem to be sipping on soda. Instead, infused waters are very popular among the students.

Adams said, “It’s been a huge win for us. We started with one three-gallon dispenser and couldn’t keep it full.”

On this Friday, featured infused waters included lemon, mint, pineapple and cucumber-melon. And among the food offerings for lunch were fish sandwiches with coleslaw, falafel, grilled cheese, barbecue pork sandwiches, and the ubiquitous pizza and burgers.

“The fish sandwich and barbecue sandwich will be heavy hitters,” Walden predicted.

Also on the menu and always available are a well-stocked salad bar, a sandwich bar, soups and the previously mentioned Mongolian wok.

Walden said students can customize their meals — such as order something without onions — and they are encouraged to try things. He said that a couple of times a year, the staff at the dining commons weighs the leftover food to see how much is being wasted, and what is or isn’t getting eaten.

This prompted the staff to develop “try a taste” so students could taste-test something before getting a whole plateful. There also is an area in the lobby of Segundo where each of the day’s featured meals is on display, so students know what is being served and where.

Behind the scenes
The Culinary Support Center prepares things like dips and sauces, dressings and soups, and lots of veggies for the three dining commons and a few other campus food outlets.

Arriving from the Student Farm the previous day were 290 pounds of cabbage, which was being prepped for coleslaw, stir fry and the salad bar. In the big walk-in fridge, other bins from the Student Farm held beets, rutabagas, cauliflower, turnips and daikon, all of which would be incorporated into dining commons meals.

The biggest campus-grown produce they receive, Walden said, is tomatoes — about 12,000 pounds of them.

Walden said about 100,000 pounds of tomatoes are grown for research at UCD’s Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility, which the Culinary Support Center turns into 800 to 1,000 gallons of sauce. Student Farm-grown basil complements it.

Making it last
Walden and Adams both want the healthful eating habits taught in the dining commons to last a lifetime.

“We try to reach the freshmen in their home-away-from-home, or kitchen-away-from-home,” Adams said. “I use nutrition students to plan activities to engage students in the whole idea of healthy eating.”

Nutrition students also spend time with Bob Walden and the staff at Segundo as well.

“We’re part of the literal education of the students here,” Walden said. “I love this part of my job!”

Adams said she and her nutrition students schedule cooking demonstrations in the dining commons to teach some basics as well as how to use seasonal foods.

“Last week we talked about beets,” Adams said. The Student Farm is growing them, “so we showed them two or three ways to cook beets.”

Adams and her students also maintain a blog —http://healthyaggies.com — with easy and healthful recipes, tips for grocery shopping and articles that inspire a healthy lifestyle.

Notes: The dining commons aren’t just for students. Anyone can eat there, and Walden said the faculty and staff meal plans are becoming more popular (learn more athttp://dining.ucdavis.edu/facultystaff.html). Even those who have no affiliation to UCD can indulge at the dining commons. Breakfast costs $9.20, lunch is $10.50 and dinner is $13.30. Students, staff and faculty who are not on a meal plan receive a 20 percent discount.

— Reach Tanya Perez at tperez@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8082. Follow her on Twitter at @EnterpriseTanya