What's on the menu?

What's on the menu?

A software application called FoodPro is helping to feed thousands of students

The team that plans Penn State’s menus for the dining commons has some rules:

  1. Always balance comfort food with healthy selections. 
  2. Don’t pick recipes that need to be made in a ramekin. When you’re cooking for thousands, that’s a lot of individual servings. 
  3. Never plan a special menu for a Monday. There’s too much prep that would need to be done over the weekend.

These are some of the lessons Peg Skerchock and her colleagues have learned (sometimes the hard way) while working together to feed thousands of students across all Penn State campuses.

Skerchock’s not a cook or a chef — she’s an IT consultant and FoodPro administrator with Penn State’s Housing and Food Services. FoodPro helps manage almost every aspect of food service at Penn State: ordering, recipes, inventory and helping to predict how much food to make on which days.

“I manage the FoodPro system on a day-to-day basis,” says Skerchock. “I can customize data reports, write ad-hoc programs, and make sure the data is organized and clean for more than 45 food service operations across the Commonwealth.”

Keeping data free from clutter is important. Among other things, the software keeps track of the 22,613 recipes that use any of the 7,408 ingredients in its system, as well as the University’s inventory that fills the more than 32,000 square foot warehouse in the basement of the Housing and Food Services building. 

All that information takes up space. 

“Sometimes an item gets ordered only once, but that item number stays in the system. Say we have the option to buy chopped one-quarter inch celery and three-quarter inch celery, but a chef wants half-inch pieces for a particular recipe,” says Skerchock. “We can go in and delete a number if it isn’t used again so it doesn’t clutter the system.”

Clean and accurate data helps the system run smoothly, which is important when it comes to its other functions, like menu planning.

Twice a year, a committee meets to develop the semester’s menu. The group of cooks, managers and chefs look at what items have been popular at which locations, which ones may have to be adjusted or removed and what new recipes they want to try. 

After adjustments are made, FoodPro creates a three-week menu that cycles throughout the semester. The software also has a feature called forecasting, which helps the team predict how many customers they will serve at each meal as well as how many portions of each menu item to make for each meal at each location.

“FoodPro takes historical information into account to help us decide how much to make of each item,” Skerchock says. “But we can always override it, and sometimes the software doesn’t take past events into consideration. It won’t necessarily know that a blizzard happened on a particular day last year and more students ate more food in the dining commons because they couldn’t go anywhere else. Forecasting gives us a very useful starting point.”

Blizzards non-withstanding, students’ tastes can be fickle and change from year to year as well. While Skerchock’s favorite might be the shepherd’s pie, students often have a completely different palate. There are always predictable favorites, like hamburgers and chicken tenders, but Skerchock says she’s sometimes surprised by what does well. Some were skeptical of adding sushi to the menu, but it ended up being a hit. 

Brandon Hendricks, manager of Pollock Commons, said students are also continuing to care about the nutritional value and impact of their food. Complete nutritional information is linked to every recipe, which can be viewed on the Penn State Food Services’ website or their app, Dining@PSU. 

“This generation is wanting healthier and sustainable options more and more,” says Brandon Hendricks, food service manager at Pollock Dining Commons. “At Pollock, we use local and seasonal ingredients when we can, and we’re hosting two seasonal ingredient events during the second summer session.”

A corn-themed event will take place August 7 and a strawberry-themed day took place July 9. Pollock Commons featured such seasonal strawberry dishes as strawberry cheesecake, crepes, shortcakes, milkshakes and, of course, fresh berries.

To help make ordering seasonal and local ingredients easier, local foods are highlighted in green on the bid sheets from the purchasing department. While it’s not always possible to choose them, Hendricks says it’s something the University is trying to do increasingly often.

Even though local and seasonal foods aren’t available every day, fresh produce is always on the menu via fruit, salads and fresh-cooked veggies. And when it comes to buying local and seasonal on a regular basis, you never know. There’s always room for a fourth rule.