Nov. 21, 2013

Dietetics students are key ingredient in dining

Nolan Reese
Jason Koski/University Photography
Nolan Reese ’15 prepares food at "Unleash Your Blueberry Brain Power" at North Star Dining.

On a typical day, Cornell Dining feeds more than 26,000 students, faculty, staff and campus visitors at 32 locations, from all-you-care-to-eat dining rooms to quick-stop cafes and coffee houses. A key ingredient in this massive culinary endeavor is a group of undergraduate dietetics students, who test recipes, plan theme dinners, research food labels and educate campus about healthful eating, among other tasks.

Through internships, jobs and coursework, the students, part of the Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, gain practical, hands-on experience in running a large-scale food service operation, where chefs prepare dishes that appeal to a variety of palates while being mindful of food allergies, cultural diet restrictions, and health and nutrition needs.

This semester, seven students work for Michelle Lefebvre, Cornell Dining’s registered dietitian and nutritionist – three for supervised fieldwork credit and four as interns or student managers. Other dietetics students work for Cornell Dining, though not for Lefebvre, in positions around campus where they apply their nutrition knowledge.

“These students have already experienced eating on campus, and now they’re involved in improving it, which gives them a very strong management opportunity,” she said.

Michelle Leonetti
Jason Koski/University Photography
Michelle Leonetti ’14 works at a “Peel The Love” dining event at Oakenshields to promote the health benefits of bananas.

As a freshman, Michelle Leonetti ’14 began assisting Cornell Dining to gain experience in dietetics and later became a dining nutrition intern. Now, four years later, she is a student manager under Lefebvre, hoping to one day work as a registered dietitian in the food industry.

“It’s been one of the most invaluable experiences for me,” Leonetti said. “We learn all these things in class, but we don’t necessarily get thrown in there and learn what it’s like. It’s so important to experience things, to see it for yourself.”

The positions help students explore management options available to dietitians, said Emily Gier, lecturer and DPD director. Plus, she added, the opportunity for “real-world” experience contributes to Cornell students’ high placement rate in competitive dietetics internships after graduation.

“Not only are our students bright, but they’re getting these related experiences,” Gier said. “It helps make what they’re learning in the classroom real. Nothing can replace that hands-on experience.”

Each spring, senior dietetics students in the required capstone course, Applied Dietetics in Food Service Systems, stir up something even bigger: theme dinners planned with Cornell Dining on West Campus. Roughly 40 students divide into small teams and work with chefs to define their events, set menus and hire entertainment – all while sticking to a budget.

Gier said students learn “all aspects of food service management, including procurement, food safety, quantity production, finance and marketing.” She added, “They learn to collaborate with chefs, offer programs of interest to the house deans and students, and work within the parameters of Cornell Dining guidelines for quality and service.”

As a nutrition intern last spring and summer, Nolan Reese ’15 came to understand the complexity of feeding campus, where he assisted Lefebvre by cataloging Cornell Dining’s food inventory, and researching ingredients, allergens and nutritional data.

“It’s a gigantic project, since the inventory of every dining room constantly changes, and chefs may want to try new ingredients,” Reese said. “We make sure information is entered correctly, which comes down to item-by-item research and management.”

Such experiences expose students to all aspects of food service management and help students get an early introduction to the field, Gier said. Many go on to become registered dietitians working in research, clinical or institutional settings.

“We have this incredible resource with Cornell Dining.” Gier said. “Students are tapping into the best of the best.”

Sarah Cutler ’16 is a student communications assistant for the College of Human Ecology.