Stu Orefice serves 13,000 meals a day. He prepared to take on this Herculean task at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in the 1980s, where he earned his undergraduate degree and went on to become assistant director of dining. He has been head of dining services at Princeton University since the fall of 1992.

Feeding thousands of hungry students, and a few hundred of their teachers, wasn’t easy when Stu Orefice began his career, but it has become exponentially more complicated in the last few years — and in some surprising ways.

“There was a big change after 9/11,” he says. 9/11? Yes, New York City is a short train ride away from campus, but how did the terrorist attacks affect the business of feeding students? “Security,” explains Orefice. Oh, yes, there has been speculation that terrorists could fairly easily contaminate foodstuffs. “We constantly ask our suppliers about the origin of their products,” he says. “That’s relatively new.” The vigilance pays off, even when the culprit is not vengeful, but merely careless. “Within 20 minutes of the spinach scare we knew where all of our spinach came from,” says Orefice.

While food safety has been taking on a greater urgency, a whole crop of new issues keeps springing up. Are some types of fishing destroying ocean habitats? Is it better to buy local than organic if a choice must be made? Do machete-wielding children who will never see the inside of a school room pick the beans for 10,000 pounds of coffee the students drink each year? Is it possible to remove all trans-fats from French fries?

“Were these issues on the radar at Cornell when I was a student? Flat out no!” says Orefice. “There was very little about how produce was grown, about how animals were treated.”

Now there is concern, particularly in a sophisticated community like Princeton University, over everything from how fish are farmed — and fried — to what happens to the left-overs.

Attempting to answer all concerns, dining services, an operation that employs some 300 full-time and 275 part-time workers, has embarked on a number of initiatives.

Princeton’s fish, for example, are color-coded. A chart on the dining services’ website, and in dining halls, separates fish into three categories — green, yellow, and red. The “green” fish are best choices, the “yellow” good alternatives, and the “red” are to be avoided. Orefice says Greening Princeton, a student group (www.princeton.edu/~greening/.us), brought issues related to over-fishing and fish farming practices to his attention in 2002. He began buying according to environmentally correct fishing principles the next year. Then, last May, his department formalized a relationship with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Northeast Region Seafood Watch, which provides guidance in choosing fish.

A quick scan of the chart indicates that farmed catfish are “green” fish, while farmed salmon are “red” fish. Why is that? Aren’t all farmed fish pretty much the same?

“No,” says Orefice. “The more you drill down, the more you see the differences. It’s how the fish are farmed. Are they farmed in the ocean as opposed to under a roof? Where does the water go? Farmed salmon are not healthy.” His office has a staffer whose job it is to keep on top of fish issues. “We’ve learned an awful lot,” says Orefice.

While the most ecologically aware students are heading the drive toward supporting fishing that does not destroy ocean habitat, every student is being barraged with article after article in the mainstream press on the health dangers of trans fats. They may not care too much about where their fish comes from, but they want to make sure that they are not fried in fats that will clog their arteries.

“We changed the frying oil to trans fat-free oil 18 months ago,” says Orefice. But nothing is simple. “There were some issues with quality and with pricing materials,” he says. Very few students could detect a taste difference in fish and chicken fried in the new, healthier oils, but the French fries were just not the same. “We’ve changed the potatoes around, but they still don’t have the same quality,” he says.

All of the university’s fryers are now trans fat-free, but Orefice, adding another layer to the complexity, says that does not mean that all the food the students are eating is free of trans fats. “Some foods have trans fats in their coatings,” he explains. He says that it is highly doubtful that any food operation anywhere is able to offer fried food that is completely free of trans fats.

This may become less important as time goes on, and fried food consumption continues to drop. Already, says Orefice, students dining in the university’s retail food courts eat more salads than all fried food categories combined.

Among the salads eaters are the university’s vegetarians. About 8 percent of the students are vegetarians, he says, a group that “seems to increase slightly” each year. But the big change, he says, is in the number of students who are “experimenting with it.” Recently, the number of students who eat as vegetarians some of the time has increased from the high 30 percent mark to over 40 percent. “There is a sense of eating healthier,” he says, “and eating more vegetables is healthier.” Students may still opt for chicken tenders once in a while, but they are leaning more toward piling greens on their plates.

Whenever possible, Orefice tries to get those greens — and all of the orange, red, purple, and white vegetables, and fruit, too — from local farmers. Surprisingly, he says that his purchasing priority is “local first, and then organic.”

“We started looking at organic foods,” he says, “but found that local was more important.” Local produce may in fact be organic too, but the farmer may not have done the paperwork to become certified. Organic is good, he says, and when produce is both organic and local — and priced well, too — it gets the nod. But local is especially important for a number of reasons.

“We looked at what was happening in the industry,” he says. “We thought about life-cycle analysis. The students did research.” They decided that organic produce that has to be shipped in from California might well be worse for the environment than locally-grown produce that is not certified organic. Shipping uses oil and contributes to greenhouse gases. The distance also means that the produce will not be fresh by the time that it makes it onto a dinner place.

Buying local, on the other hand, gives the university’s produce buyers a large measure of control over their fruit and vegetables, supports local farmers, helps preserve area acreage as farmland, and saves fuel. Local is also the most fresh produce available.

“When we bid our produce, we ask for a local bid, a non-local bid, and an organic bid,” says Orefice. “If the price is the same, we look at local. If it’s 5 percent higher, we might still go with local.” But the university’s dining services division cannot pay any price to obtain its food. “We do have some budgeting issues,” says Orefice.

Still, students are asking for more organic food alternatives, even when they are more expensive. Orefice tries to accommodate this preference by eking out price savings elsewhere. “At the end of the school year, if we’ve done a decent job and have money left over, we’ll go to the Greening Students and say ‘What do you want to do next.’” Last year the surplus money went toward the purchase of organic bread for toast, which joins another recent addition, a choice of three organic cereals. Next up will probably be an organic spring mix for salads.

Many students want meat to go along with that salad. “The students eat a lot of protein, a lot of poultry,” says Orefice. “It’s a high expense item.”

Even with Peter Singer, the world’s best known advocate of a completely animal-free diet, teaching on campus, animal cruelty is not yet a big concern with most students. “It’s always a concern for a small sub-set of students,” says Orefice, “and we listen to all of our students.” Toward that end, he is now pricing free-to-roam chickens, birds that live free of the most inhumane chicken raising practices.

When all of the food, whether animal or vegetable, has been prepared and served, there is a large amount of waste material left over. Amid concerns that this organic material is straining landfill capacity and contributing to global warming, the university tries to dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way.

“Some goes to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen,” says Orefice. Some of the scraps that are unsuitable for human recycling go to a pig farmer who has been picking up university leftovers since 1994. “But,” says Orefice, “pig farmers are a dying breed.” Therefore, a number of those scraps are now finding their way into biodiesel fuel.

Like nearly everyone who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, Orefice’s early meals were unshadowed by concerns about global warming, pesticides, animal cruelty, the destruction of fishing habitat, or the extinction of the small, local farm.

“I grew up in the Bronx and then in Westchester,” he says. “We’re a large Italian family, and we eat a lot. We enjoy cooking.” Nevertheless, at a couple of decades older than the students he feeds, Orefice has changed his eating habits of late. “It’s not necessarily because of outside influences,” he says. It’s just that he is now more conscious of his health. His diet is not limited to any one type of food, however. He thinks it’s important to sample everything that he serves.

“I’ve tried to put myself in the position of the students we serve,” he says. “I taste just about everything.” Times have changed. Eating has become complex, but there is a constant. The food has to taste good, and it’s Orefice’s job to make sure that it does.

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