Michelle Loftus stared into the pot, carefully stirring the bubbling mixture within.
“Slow and low,” Loftus said to the crowd, her voice echoing throughout the UC atrium. “Until it gets to the right consistency.”
Loftus, UM Dining’s executive sous-chef, went on to demonstrate how to pickle asparagus, pouring vinegar-based brine onto the thickly cut stalks. Around her, seven samples of pickled goods sat out for passing students to taste.
“This is a great, great way to extend the growing season,” Loftus said. “It seems scary, but once you start it’s not.”
Loftus’ demonstration is a part of Earth Week on campus, and another example of how UM Dining encourages nutritious eating.
According to registered dietitian Rebecca Wade, the average UM student is more nutrition-savvy than students on other campuses. She credits this to the active, hardy lifestyle of Montanans.
“We do pay attention to what we eat more than other regions in the U.S.,” Wade said.
However, she said freshmen often find it difficult adjusting to healthy eating.
“Freshmen will a lot of times come and follow a certain pattern,” Wade said. “They’ll eat foods that are familiar to them for the first few weeks — things like pizza, pasta and burgers. All those pretty comfort-based foods. After the first few weeks they’ll start branching out.”
Wade said branching out increases the amount of healthy foods freshmen eat in the Food Zoo. They start trying more unique dishes, like cherry-braised kale, she said.
Living in the dorms can also have negative impacts on an individual’s commitment to nutritious foods. Every residence hall on campus has a vending machine to tempt students into eating less nutritious snacks.
“The environment you live in directly impacts what your food choices are,” Wade said. “Access to either healthy or unhealthy foods will lead to consumption of those foods ... If you have to pass that candy machine every single day, occasionally you will stop and have one.”
And it’s not just in the dorms. Wade said people frequently see unhealthy snacks, forcing them to decide whether they should succumb to temptations or not.
“We’re bombarded with times when we have to make choices about foods,” Wade said. “We’ve included food, particularly unhealthy types of foods, into so many places where they didn’t used to be included. We have to make choices about our consumption of food many, many more times in modern days than 40 or 30 years ago.”
With more opportunities, people tend to eat snacks they wouldn’t in environments that have healthier options, Wade said. This increases their sugar intake.
“In general, students right now over-consume sugar,” Wade said. “And not sugar from fruits and vegetables, sugar that gets added to foods ... That’s not necessarily an active choice, a lot of students are just really unaware of how much sugar is in our food system."
This results in a range of negative consequences. The afternoon energy crash, for example, is a common side effect.
“Your blood sugar will rise and then fall consequently,” Wade said. “When it falls dramatically and quickly, you’ll feel that energy low. Long term, over-consumption of sugar leads to diabetes, but there’s a whole host of other health issues that are just exasperated by high sugar intake, like inflammation.”
To help combat the high-sugar diet, Wade said the dining establishments try to offer a variety of options.
“That’s the mantra we use across campus — trying to make healthy foods available and accessible,” Wade said. “But not make that the only thing you can choose, so students feel like they are in control, and that they have ownership over their health choices.”
Part of these options come from the UM garden on the west side of the Lommasson Center, where fresh vegetables and fruit grow, from carrots to spicy greens, to peaches and strawberries. The garden is supervised by Natasha Hegmann.
Hegmann said the proximity of the garden to UM Dining, where the harvest is distributed, adds to food's nutritional value.
“As soon as you start harvesting, every day [the plants] are losing nutritional value,” Hegmann said. “[These vegetables] don’t spend as much time decomposing.”
But the number one benefit of the garden, according to Hegmann, is the educational aspect.
“[Students] are concerned about where their food is coming from,” Hegmann said. “They can know the answers to their questions.”
Wade agrees, and said having knowledge about healthy, nutritional foods is important for truly healthy lifestyles.