The MCURC: Cultivating the long-term well-being of people and the planet one student, one meal at a time
Build a regenerative and nourishing food future for universities that will create healthier, more sustainable food systems nationwide.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
The Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC)
Lead Applicant Organization Type
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
The 57 College and University campuses of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC).
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Stanford University and The Culinary Institute of America co-founded and jointly lead the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, an extension of the Menus of Change®: The Business of Healthy, Sustainable, Delicious Food Choices. The MCURC is a collaboration of forward-thinking scholars, food service leaders, executive chefs, and administrators representing a network of 57 colleges and universities that are accelerating efforts to move people toward healthier, more sustainable, and delicious foods using evidence-based research, education, and innovation. The Collaborative is composed of a diverse mix of perspectives as far as geographic location, size and type of institution (both private and public), fields of study, and types of dining operations. With almost 1 million students across all MCURC schools that collectively serve over 800,000 meals daily, this network is strategically positioned to conduct multisite applied research, scale best practices, and create collective targets and policies that accelerate food-systems impact within the MCURC and its member universities as well as positively influencing the broader food system within the US.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The college and university sector has tremendous potential to positively impact the future of our food system. University students, faculty, operators and administrators across the US are becoming increasingly concerned and outspoken about the environmental, health, and societal impacts of our current food system. This is an encouraging trend, as universities offer a unique intersection of people, skills, and knowledge that has the transformative potential to drive change and innovation. Additionally, lifelong food choices are formed during the college years and today’s college students are tomorrow’s business leaders, household decision makers, and parents who will shape the values and behaviors of generations to come. Students across the 57 colleges and universities within the MCURC will consume an astounding 15 billion meals in their lifetime. With over 20 million college students attending American colleges and universities each year, examining and influencing eating preferences and behaviors with this population is critically important for improving the future of our food system. Universities are living laboratories – dynamic learning environments where applied research is bridged with operational innovation – offering unique opportunities to study behaviors, test strategies, and design policies with the next generation of food consumers. Colleges and universities also represent billions of dollars in food purchases annually, equivalent to the total spend of all chain restaurants in the US combined. This collective purchasing power has the potential to positively influence food producers, distributors, and retailers towards healthier, more sustainable food products and production systems. Many universities are also exploring new systems and technologies to address pressing food systems issues such as food waste and food security on college campuses. The MCURC leverages these unique qualities of universities by connecting a diversity of insights from academic researchers, administrators, dining operators, students, nutrition and sustainability managers, and other stakeholders within each member institution and across colleges and universities within the MCURC to conduct applied research, scale best practices, and generate evidence-based policies and collective targets.
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Obesity affects almost 40% of US adults contributing to chronic diseases that are among the leading causes of death in the US. Excessive intake of highly processed, energy-dense foods, and insufficient intake of nutritious, plant based foods are among the leading dietary risk factors for deaths and disability. Despite decades of efforts to improve eating habits, few approaches have proved effective in shifting consumer behavior. The transition from adolescence to adulthood is an important time for establishing lifelong eating habits but unfortunately this transitional period is often marked by a decline in diet quality.
Nearly a quarter of all planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions come from food production. Food intake that exceeds dietary needs, especially from animal protein, and staggering amounts of food waste are primary drivers of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Despite a growing interest in and number of plant based protein options, early indications suggest that Gen Z is still trending towards meat-rich diets and Recycling Works has estimated that the average college and a university student living on campus wastes 142 pounds of food per year. Foodservice operators are increasingly concerned about the labor and financial costs of overproducing food. A survey among MCURC members showed that 91% rated high or very high, the level of priority paid to addressing food waste.
The HOPE Center College and University Basic Needs Insecurity Report found that approximately 41% of college students surveyed experienced food insecurity and almost half of students could not afford to eat balanced meals. The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee has declared a “College Affordability Crisis” in the US and increasing tuition, room and board rates threaten to exacerbate issues like food insecurity. Evidence shows that high quality diets and nutrient-rich foods can support physical and mental well-being and academic performance but healthier, more sustainable foods are often more expensive and labor intensive to prepare.
One of the biggest challenges (and opportunities) of shifting diets is the need for culturally relevant solutions that align with the diverse motivations and social norms of consumers. The field of nutrition and behavioral research is in desperate need of replication in applied settings to identify how, when and with who interventions are most effective.
A growing number of colleges and universities are adopting food policies tied to healthy and sustainable food initiatives but more evaluation is needed to determine the impact of these policies and a greater body of evidence is needed to inform smart food policies and guide the delegation of resources.
While technological innovations in the food space are rapidly accelerating, new technologies are needed to support applied research for behavioral interventions influencing food choices and eating behaviors.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Design campus food environments that encourage healthier, more sustainable food choices. Guided by the 24 Menus of Change Principles, the MCURC will generate toolkits, guidelines, best practices for designing health and sustainability into dining operations, and integrating food education throughout the college experience.
Shape the future or our food system by targeting tomorrow’s consumers, parents, educators, and innovators. By engaging students during their formative college years the MCURC will positively influence the 15 billion meals they will eat during their lifetimes and create exponential impact across their families, communities, and business endeavors.
Implement new systems and strategies to eliminate food waste on university campuses. The MCURC will comprehensively evaluate drivers of food waste in the university food environment to develop, test, and iterate new systems and technologies that will reduce overproduced food and identify channels to donate surplus to people in need.
Shift food purchases across the MCURC to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The MCURC’s Collective Impact initiative, an ongoing collaboration to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions across the MCURC by 25% by 2030, will scale best practices for reducing purchases of environmentally taxing foods and leverage the Collaborative’s collective purchasing power to positively influence food producers, distributors, and other stakeholders.
Identify comprehensive, fiscally sustainable strategies to eliminate food insecurity on college campuses. The MCURC will utilize its expansive network and collaborative research model to better understand food insecurity on college campuses, identify the root causes, and generate a toolbox of fiscally sustainable strategies and policies that can be adapted to meet the diverse needs of colleges and universities across the US.
Embrace the diversity of our membership to test and implement culturally relevant solutions that celebrate diverse cultures and ways of thinking. The MCURC research model provides a distinctive platform for testing strategies across geographically, economically, and socially diverse settings. Our approach embraces input from many types of stakeholders to evaluate how, when and with who interventions are most effective.
Generate new evidence to inform smart food policies. Through applied research and insights from practice, the MCURC will generate new evidence to inform smart food policies that go beyond making healthy and sustainable choices easy, to encourage new mindsets that instill lifelong preferences for good, nourishing food.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
The vision of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative to cultivate the long-term well-being of people and the planet one student, one meal at a time, ensures a future where today’s challenges become tomorrow’s opportunities. The vision challenges us to tackle complex food systems issues but assures that the steps towards this future are feasible and stakeholder-informed by relying on an established collaborative framework within the MCURC.
We envision a future where all universities can affordably and sustainably nourish their students while driving food systems change through collaborative research, applied strategies and evidence-based policies that encourage healthier, more sustainable eating behaviors, operational practices and production systems. In this vision university students across the country will engage in a transformative food experience as part of a campus food environment that is strategically designed to ensure that no food goes wasted, no student goes hungry, and students are instilled with healthy, sustainable eating habits that last a lifetime. These students will go on to become tomorrow's leaders, parents, consumers, and food system influencers, creating an exponential shift towards a healthy, sustainable food future. The Food System Vision Prize will rapidly accelerate the MCURC’s efforts to study, develop and scale the most effective innovations and insights to achieve this vision.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
The vision of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC) is to cultivate the long-term well-being of people and the planet one student, one meal at a time. We envision a future where all universities can affordably and sustainably nourish their students while driving food systems change through collaborative research, applied strategies and evidence-based policies that encourage healthier, more sustainable eating behaviors, operational practices and production systems. In this vision, university students across the country will engage in a transformative food experience as part of a campus food environment that is strategically designed to ensure that no food goes wasted, no student goes hungry, and students are instilled with healthy, sustainable eating habits that last a lifetime. These students will go on to become tomorrow's leaders, parents, consumers, and food system influencers, creating an exponential shift towards a healthy, sustainable food future. The Food System Vision Prize will rapidly accelerate the MCURC’s efforts to study, develop and scale the most effective innovations and insights to achieve this vision.
Our vision challenges us to tackle complex food systems challenges but assures that the steps towards this future are feasible and stakeholder-informed by relying on an established collaborative framework within the MCURC. The MCURC recognizes that, in order to address these critical food challenges, systems-level solutions should integrate academic, business, culinary, and consumer insights. One of the best ways to advance such thinking is by incubating collaborations in university-wide academic and foodservice settings — and collaboration among universities. By connecting forward-thinking scholars, food service leaders, executive chefs, and administrators representing a network of 57 colleges and universities, we utilize collaborative, evidence-based strategies to accelerate efforts to move people toward healthier, more sustainable, and delicious foods. The Collaborative is composed of a diverse mix of perspectives as far as geographic location, size and type of institution (both private and public), fields of study, and types of dining operations. With almost 1 million students across all MCURC schools that collectively serve over 800,000 meals daily, this network is strategically positioned to conduct multi-site applied research, scale best practices, and create collective targets and policies that accelerate food-systems impact within the MCURC and its member universities as well as positively influencing the broader food system within the US.
These efforts will be guided by the Menus of Change Principes, and focused on addressing food systems challenges related to diet, environment, economics, culture, policy, and technology. These challenges are multifaceted and interconnected, requiring integrated solutions that are stakeholder informed. Universities are ideal settings for creating collaborative solutions because they interact with all of the Food Value Chain Actors - for instance, purchasing from local or sustainable producers, supporting the livelihoods of food workers, working with or acting as food processors, receiving food from distributors, employing preparers, managing retailers, feeding consumers, and collaborating with waste recoverers. The MCURC is strategically positioned to scale and accelerate solutions because of the organization’s engagement with each of the System Influencers - such as seeking support from investors, guiding policy makers, inspiring food innovators, pressuring large food corporations to adopt better practices, collaborating with NGOs, uniting scientists and researchers, telling our story through food writers, and investing in the futures of our students.
MCURC already has a demonstrated ability to influence change within our member schools and beyond through this groundbreaking collaborative model. An example is the DISH study (Delicious Impressions Support Healthy eating), which began as a field study at Stanford University examining whether menu language that emphasized flavor and taste were more effective at driving consumption of vegetables than language that emphasized health, or simply named the food. After promising results at a single institution, this research was replicated at 5 universities across the United States to see whether these results would translate in diverse settings. Overall, the DISH study analyzed 138,000 diner decisions over several months and found that taste-focused language resulted in a 29 percent increase in the number of students choosing vegetables compared to health-focused language, and a 14 percent increase compared to basic descriptions. Insights from this research were translated into a dynamic resource, the Edgy Veggies toolkit, that guides foodservice operators in implementing taste-focused language into their menus to promote healthier, more sustainable food choices. The potential for impact is tremendous if every MCURC collaborative member implemented the Edgy Veggie toolkit, this would translate to an astonishing 38,000 more vegetable servings per day among member campuses alone. The toolkit has been downloaded hundreds of times and is now being used to guide new policies and practices across K-12 foodservice, hospitals, restaurants, and nonprofits.
This vision leverages the unique position of universities and the collaborative power of the MCURC to advance three synergistic paths to impact: Applied Research, Operational Innovations, and Policies & Target Setting. These paths to impact are iterative, regenerative and driven by ideas and actions flowing between stakeholders within and across universities through the MCURC. Utilizing dining halls as living laboratories, applied research will bring far more advanced results in terms of applicability in the real world, compared with traditional academic research. The MCURC is uniquely positioned to provide the rigor of an academic environment, while allowing experimentation in real-life settings, and the ability to replicate research across multiple universities. Operational innovations will guide the development and implementation of new systems, processes, and technologies that support healthy and sustainable food initiatives on university campuses. We will leverage the MCURC network to test and scale these innovations and establish best practices across the university foodservice sector. These research insights and operational innovations will enable universities to design smart food policies that make healthy and sustainable food choices the more appealing option for students, dining operations, and university administrators. The MCURC will also employ collective targets, such as the Collective Impact initiative’s target to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions, to guide research priorities, encourage the adoption of best practices, and measure progress towards our vision across universities.
The MCURC vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for university communities has the transformative potential to redefine food systems across universities and beyond. In this future, campus food environments will be living representations of Menus of Change Principles where student motivations are aligned with environmental cues that encourage and reinforce healthy and sustainable eating behaviors. During these influential years where students are particularly receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking, universities will deliver transformative food experiences that positively influence the trajectory of students’ food choices across their lives. University dining programs will be empowered to eliminate food waste in their operations and students will adopt sustainable behaviors in college that will divert future food waste as these students transition to adult consumers. Universities will minimize the environmental impact of their food purchases, and align menus and programs to maintain sustainable greenhouse gas emissions. Universities will have equal access to affordable food that is healthy and sustainable, and all students will enjoy ample food to nourish their growth and development. The MCURC will continue to conduct cutting-edge applied research across multiple universities and design culturally relevant solutions that align with the diverse needs of our stakeholders, as needs will continue to change in the future. The collaborative network will grow in depth and breadth to instill widespread adoption of evidence-based policies and best practices across universities and other foodservice sectors.
By transforming university food environments and redefining the role of universities in driving food systems change, the MCURC’s vision will have exponential impact on the future of food, health, and sustainability in the US. Establishing healthy and sustainable eating behaviors in early adulthood will substantially reduce the economic costs associated with obesity and diet-related chronic disease. Best practices generated from MCURC’s research and innovations can be shared and implemented across sectors, including K-12 foodservice, hospitals, and restaurants. Insights from the MCURC’s work will inform smart food policies that extend beyond making healthy choices the easy choices to making healthy choices the preferred choices. The MCURC will drive innovative technologies and collective strategies that can be adapted to help other foodservice segments deliver nourishing, sustainable food at an affordable price. Leveraging the substantial purchasing power and influence of universities will positively reshape how food is sourced, prepared, consumed and recovered within universities and across the greater food system to ensure the long-term well-being of people and the planet.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?