As an undergraduate, Erin Zettell took General Ecology, Field Botany of Northern Michigan, and Environmental Writing and Literature of the Great Lakes at the U-M Biological Station (UMBS). By her senior year, she knew she wanted to pursue nutritional sciences in her post-graduate work, but still dreamed of returning to the Station.
Fast forward to April 2018.
Zettell and classmates Amanda Lownes and Natalie Manitius were finishing up their time at the U-M School of Public Health (SPH) and thinking about next steps. Upon graduating with their Master of Public Health (MPH) in Nutritional Sciences with a concentration in Dietetics, they needed to begin their Dietetic Internship (DI) in pursuit of becoming Registered Dietitians (RDs), which are board certified specialists in human nutrition. The requirements for the DI include rotational trainings in various clinical, community, and food service settings. In general, food service rotations are completed in large dining facilities, where Dietetic Interns practice inventory and purchasing, safety and sanitation, production, retail, and financial management. A lightbulb went on for Zettell.
“When I realized that we could organize our own rotations, I immediately thought about completing a food service rotation at the Biological Station,” says Zettell. “I was already looking for a way to come back, and it just clicked that we could apply our dietetics training to making the food here better represent the spirit of the place.”
Zettell pitched the idea to Lownes and Manitius, who immediately got on board. The three talked with their SPH administrators, and with Laurie Brooke, the dining hall manager at UMBS. A spring term collaboration was born.
Zettell, Lownes, and Manitius got right to work, relocating from Ann Arbor to UMBS in early May. They had big ideas for enhancing UMBS dining, but also applauded the fine-tuned operation that was already in place.
“Laurie has been doing an incredible job,” says Lownes. “She already sources a lot of local foods – greens, organic oats, honey, syrup, meats, fruits and veggies. She has been so receptive to our ideas, but we want to shine a light on the things she and her staff have been doing well for a long time.”
“We want to break down the wall between Laurie and the kitchen staff, and the rest of camp. We want customers to see the great work they’re doing,” she added.
Manitius noted the importance of being able to approach dining hall management from different perspectives.
“The nature of Laurie’s role requires her to see things through the lens of operations and logistics,” she says. “With our training, we can approach it through the lens of health and wellness promotion.”
As for Brooke herself, she has “never been happier” with dining at UMBS.
“I was scared going into it – overhauling dining as spring term was picking up was a daunting prospect. But the girls have just been amazing. They’re making great changes while working within our system.”
Some of the most tangible changes the interns have implemented include adding more vegetarian and vegan options, transparent labeling for ingredients and potential allergens, options for dietary restrictions, and reduced food waste. They have also created educational materials on proper composting, sensible portion size, and making healthy dining choices.
Both Brooke and the interns say that one of the biggest ongoing challenges is trying to meet the dietary needs and preferences of not only students, but UMBS staff, faculty, and researchers. The interns hope that some of their educational materials will help people choose the kinds of foods that they enjoy, and will keep them full during long days in the field, lab, or classroom.
The overarching goal remains to reflect the environmentalist ideals of UMBS through the food it serves. Zettell says it best:
“When I was a student, we talked about climate change every day, in every class. It wouldn’t feel right to come to the dining hall and eat the kind of products that undermine our values and goals for sustainability. We wanted to help bridge that gap.”
Zettell, Lownes, and Manitius will be on site for one more week before moving on to their next endeavors. They plan to leave Brooke and her team prepared for a whole summer of healthy dining options. Beyond their tenure at UMBS, they are hopeful that the internship can continue for future Dietetic Interns. As for their experience, they “couldn’t have seen it going better.”
“Seeing everything go from week one – when the lake was still frozen and no one was in camp — to now has been incredible,” says Manitius. "A highlight is having both students and UMBS veterans tell us how much they enjoyed the food. The feedback has been really positive.”