How Dr. Robert Valgenti is Changing Campus Food

Dr. Robert Valgenti headshot

Every year, 30% of all food in America goes to waste, much of it due to consumer behavior. Dr. Robert Valgenti, associate professor of philosophy, may not be able to fix this problem completely, but, recently, he found himself in a position to do something about it.

Dr. Valgenti joined the Menus of Change executive board, an organization devoted to improving sustainability and nutrition in campus food services. He was asked to join after the board displayed interest in the E.A.T initiative, a program at Lebanon Valley College with the express goals of improving food services and “to promote and assess the goals of ethical reasoning, intercultural competence, healthful living, and environmental sustainability.” 

In fact, E.A.T is quite similar to Menus of Change, so much so that Valgenti has discussed the possibility of replicating one of the waste studies conducted at LVC on a larger scale. Capturing the attention of a college campus has been difficult for Valgenti, but he believes that his work with the initiative has paved the way for even more involved studies. In his short time on the Menus of Change Board, he has become aware of some of the innovation occurring in the food service business, and hopes to bring some of this change to LVC.

“It was cool to see what they’re doing,” said Valgenti of Google, whose food service programs have taken measures to provide free dining for employees. “I loved seeing all of the possibilities that we could bring to college campuses.”

In October, Dr. Valgenti traveled to Stanford University in California to meet with representatives from more than 20 participating institutions. Despite frequent contact with each other, this was the first time that the entire board was able to meet and discuss plans for Menus of Change. For the myriad of professionals involved, it was the perfect opportunity to meet their counterparts and sponsors who have given assistance. Dr. Valgenti was honored to have LVC’s support and work with prestigious institutions on the project.

“We have places such as Harvard and Princeton working with us, so we’re running with the big dogs,” he said. “I want people to realize that this College and Metz are on the front edge of what’s happening nationwide.”

Amongst the roster of institutions, LVC is unique in that it is one of the few schools that have been able to cooperate with an outside corporation on research. Dr. Valgenti expressed his gratitude for the support that Metz has provided for his work with E.A.T. Cooperation was and is one of the prominent themes of Menus of Change, with the board wishing to involve academic and food service professionals as well as students in their research. To that end, student-led “Taste Labs” have provided a precedent for a combined approach to change in food service. The most recent lab occurred in October. Created by Ryan Goernemann ‘17, the lab compared the taste of regular burgers with a 25% bean substitute, meant to find tasty plant-based alternatives to meat. 

Kym Wentsler, marketing manager for Metz, was more than enthusiastic to work with E.A.T, a response that surprised Dr. Valgenti, given the reactions of other food service corporations at other campuses. For Metz, E.A.T and Menus of Change are opportunities to grow selections of cultural food and gain a better understanding of student tastes. With Metz as the only dining service at LVC, Wenstler hopes to change the dining culture on campus for the better. She was impressed by the projects that E.A.T has undertaken so far. 

“We are proud of the fact that any changes in the dining hall are student driven changes through research projects,” Wenstler said. 

The study is part of a larger body of research on plant consumption that is being conducted by Menus of Change. During the recent Stanford meeting, Dr. Valgenti and the board narrowed down dozens of potential research projects and have chosen three to focus on. Other than the study on alternative proteins in plants, Menus of Change is also heading research on sustainability and developing a motive for the entire program. For Dr. Valgenti, success in this project is largely dependent on the team efforts of the groups involved.

“Before we change the culture of the dining halls, we have to change the culture of cooperation,” said Dr. Valgenti.

With Metz’s enthusiasm regarding the E.A.T initiative and plenty of students willing to help out, it may very well be that Dr. Valgenti’s vision for the future of food service will come true even faster than anticipated.