RALEIGH — A tour of Fountain Dining Hall with Lisa Eberhart reveals a surprising array of tactics – some stealthy, others overt – aimed at getting N.C. State University students to eat better.
Fruit and vegetables fill the most eye-catching spots. QR codes for each item allow students to check calories with their smartphones as they order. Tiny signs on drink machines remind students that “Water is the best choice.”
And Eberhart, 55, a nutritionist with University Dining, continues to hatch new ideas. She rattles them off at breakneck speed, a crew of interns nodding at her side all the while.
But if her enthusiasm for nutrition is seemingly boundless, her end goal is clear.
“When I took this job at N.C. State, I decided that I would make this the best dining program anywhere, period,” she says. “We’re close, and we’re getting closer.”
Her innovations have been featured in trade magazines and have recently earned several awards for her and her department. She travels frequently to conferences and to visit other universities, sharing her ideas and soaking up others.
“Lisa works tirelessly to support the nutrition program for University Dining, making our foods healthier and teaching students and employees how to live a healthy lifestyle,” says Randy Lait, director of hospitality services for Campus Enterprises, the arm of the university that runs its dining program.
A limited path
Eberhart was born in the state of Washington and spent much of her youth in suburban Iowa. An internship with a dietitian during high school introduced her to the profession, though at that time she says she chose it as a career path partly because there weren’t many options.
“None of the women I knew growing up worked outside the home,” she says. “It was teacher or nurse in those days, and a dietitian was sort of like a nurse.”
She also chose the profession because she loved to eat and cook. She still does, even if these pursuits sometimes are at odds with her focus on health.
Eberhart studied nutrition at Iowa State, but pulled out of the program before graduation, earning her degree in institutional management instead, which would qualify her to work in school food service.
She also married her junior year, and soon after graduation had her two daughters. The family moved to the Triangle, where her husband got a job with the Gregory Poole Caterpillar equipment dealer.
Eberhart stayed home with her children until her younger daughter started school.
“As soon as she got on that bus, I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ” she says.
So she returned to college at UNC Greensboro, where she earned her certifications as a dietitian and nutritionist, and got a job at Rex Wellness Center working with patients who were recovering from major illnesses.
She eventually started her own practice, Cary Diet Therapy, working with athletes, people with diabetes and others referred by their doctors for help with their diets.
Practicing ‘stealth health’
Eberhart started consulting with N.C. State in the 1990s as part of her business as a private nutritionist, mainly helping individual students with specific dietary issues.
She left her private practice six years ago to take over as the main nutritionist with the dining department, staring part time and eventually turning it into a full-time position.
In that role, Eberhart has focused on making changes to help the student body eat better. She has unusual power over the student menu because, unlike most colleges and universities, N.C. State runs its own student dining program instead of contracting it out to a third party.
As she works to create a healthier menu, her main obstacle is student tastes. The dining halls need to make money, so the final word on any change is whether students like it.
She admits, a bit ruefully, that the most popular dishes on campus remain chicken fingers and pizza. But Eberhart is methodically chipping away at unhealthy habits.
Small changes, what she calls “stealth health,” are among her methods. She changed the low-fat milk to 1 percent from 2 percent, for instance, and quietly switched from white to wheat bread in grilled cheese sandwiches, and from beef to turkey meatballs.
The dining halls have also focused on using more local and minimally processed food, including bread from a local bakery, grind-your-own peanut butter, and produce and meat bought from North Carolina farmers.
“It’s a very thin rope you have to walk to help students be healthier, but still keep them happy,” she says.
When she decided to put all her energy into N.C. State, one of her first projects was creating a database of nutritional information for every item on the menu, which entailed combing every recipe the university used at that time.
It was a monumental task, so she brought in teams of qualified students to input the data. Working with software developers, they created a website that allows students to see detailed information on iPads posted at dining halls, or on their smartphones, or on their computers.
One of her most copied innovations involves students with allergies; the database allows them to search for what they can eat that day by allergen, rather than having to check each item for the offending food.
She’s also created a “worry free zone” in each dining hall stocked with gluten-free and vegan foods, and keeps email lists of students with allergies, which she uses to alert them when new allergen-free menu options become available.
To help accomplish these goals on a budget, she created an internship program in partnership with Meredith College and UNC-Chapel Hill, bringing in a crew of trained dietitians who work with students and on Eberhart’s various projects.
In addition to these ongoing efforts, Eberhart organizes two health initiatives a year. The most recent asked students and staff to make one healthy change for six weeks – offering them a wealth of suggestions, with prizes for meeting goals.
She’s particularly proud of her efforts to include faculty and staff in all of her initiatives. After the six-week challenge, several joined the university gym and are still going, she says.
Eberhart is not exactly modest about her work. She eagerly seeks out attention for her programs, saying it helps students and employees feel invested in the changes she’s made.
“Everybody hates change, but people love progress,” she says.
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