If you’ve been in Valentine, you’ve seen him. He’s a warm presence, but also a watchful one, gliding purposefully around the floor of the dining hall.
He’s Joe Flueckiger, director of dining services, and in his first year, he helped lead Amherst in a double charge: to improve the sustainability of its on-campus food system and to ensure that the food aligns with students’ palates.
New menus accommodate an undergraduate population that is eating less bread, for example, and that is more interested in plant-based diets.
“Students want healthier options, they want more local food, they want sustainability criteria to be met, and they are interested in food justice issues,” he says. “They care about how food affects the environment and the economy. And they want their pizza and fries. We’re trying to balance all those things in a way that makes sense.”
All chicken served at Val is now antibiotic-free. Gone is the custom smoothie station—it was a hazard for those with food allergies—but premixed smoothies can be customized with add-ins such as protein powder, chia seeds and spirulina.
The plastic cereal dispensers, which occupied prime real estate in the center of the serving area, have been moved to make way for less sugary offerings. As Flueckiger notes, “A big, beautiful display of fresh fruit is a much more inviting way to enter the space.”
Flueckiger came to Amherst after 25 years in management at Whole Foods, Northampton’s River Valley Co-op, the UMass Dining Commons and the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. His arrival on campus coincided with the disappearance of the hundreds of folded paper “table tents” that used to litter the dining tables. Flueckiger had those corralled into display cubes, which can be disinfected. (They also require less paper than the old tents.)
Some students objected when he relegated the tabletop salt and pepper shakers to the spice stations. “We create and test recipes,” Flueckiger explains. “We’re not going to deny anyone their salt. We just encourage people to taste the food and then salt with intention.”
Val officially went trayless, because trays encourage food waste. Under Flueckiger’s leadership, Val also improved its methods for tracking waste and began moving away from products with non-compostable packaging. He praises his colleagues for how they have coordinated efforts to develop a more sustainable food system.
For those colleagues, Flueckiger has promoted a culture of “skills development, training and encouraging staff to reach higher,” says Jim Brassord, chief of campus operations, citing one statistic in particular: nine employees have been promoted to more senior positions within Dining Services in recent months.
This year, Dining Services will purchase more food from New England suppliers, thanks to support from the Kendall Foundation. But the sustainability messaging goes both ways, Flueckiger says: “Here, the student population drives a lot of the innovation. We need to respond to students in order to remain relevant. This food system is alive—and it’s changing.”
One thing that doesn’t change is the sense of comfort and community that Dining Services aims to create each day. “Food is something to celebrate,” Flueckiger says. “I think it’s important that we make it special every time.”
In addition to changes at Valentine, Dining Services has transformed Schwemm’s, in Keefe Campus Center, into a pub. It’s still open for coffee and sandwiches during the day, but several evenings a month it serves beer and wine to faculty, staff and students of legal drinking age, often with live music performed by members of the campus community.