California Dreamin’

By Matthew White, chair of the University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) and director of catering, hotel and conferencing at the University of Reading

I’m back from our Residence Life at California’s Top Universities study tour, and what a remarkable experience it was. Accompanied by 10 hospitality and catering professionals from universities across the UK, I had an amazing opportunity to experience first-hand how university catering is managed in the USA.

Organised by our award-winning TUCO Academy, we visited five universities in seven days. These included the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

During our visit to Caltech, we met with the senior dining services team and discovered how they successfully operate a mandatory meal plan system, including a fully stocked kitchen for students to help themselves to snacks from. We were taken on a tour of the facilities, dining rooms, cafes, retail operations and student accommodation (which, interestingly, was predominantly shared). In a marked difference to the UK, Caltech were keen to emphasise the positive benefits which shared accommodation can bring to students’ health and wellbeing.

At UCLA, we found sustainability and healthy eating at the very heart of their operation. There were various outlets across a modern campus, offering food and beverages with low calorie values. In one outlet, Bruin Plate, all portions are served on smaller plates to help manage the consumption of calories and raise awareness of different food types. To encourage a healthy balanced diet, they recommend each plate not to exceed 400 calories. I was impressed to note, they also have an onsite designated gluten-free room, demonstrating just how seriously they take their approach to dietary requirements.

As expected, the healthy eating theme continued across all the universities we visited, and we spotted salad bars, plant-based dishes, grains and homegrown honey being offered daily. We were also shown how homemade salad dressings, jams and sauces are an excellent way to reduce sugar and sodium intake.

In 2012, the Culinary Institute of America introduced ‘menus of change’. In collaboration with Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, the significant initiative aims to create a long-term, practical vision for the integration of optimal nutrition and public health, environmental stewardship and restoration, and social responsibility concerns within the foodservice sector and beyond. The ‘menus of change’ campaign was inspiring, and I will be investigating to see if it can introduce to the UK. We want to influence the future, and now I’m back I can’t wait to share our experiences from this eye-opening tour.

The annual TUCO Conference takes place from 29–31 July 2019 at the University of York. For more information visit

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