Profile in Sustainability: Jon Biltucci

UCSD Staff Member | Program Manager, Rooted in Flavor

How did the idea for Rooted in Flavor come about?

Rooted in Flavor was inspired by the national Menus of Change® initiative and similar programs throughout the UC System. Housing, Dining and Hospitality (HDH) has been a member of the Menus of Change collective for more than four years.

Given the positive impact that implementing the principles of Menus of Change had already had on the food we serve, we decided that now was a good time to really dial in on a few key goals to further guide our efforts. We came up with a set of initial goals, with a long-term plan to evaluate and add new goals on an annual basis.

We decided that our initial approach would be to work to reduce the amount of beef that we serve, while increasing seafood, whole grains and wellness items on our menus. Every member of our team had a voice in the process. We collectively make changes to our menus, recipes, supply chains, systems and messaging that will support this direction.

How would you describe your role?

My role has been to act as a project manager and liaison between the different groups working on this program, while ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to have their voice heard and their concerns addressed. As we all have very different priorities and ideas, we identified the need to create forums and subcommittees where everyone’s voice could be heard, which enables us to make collective decisions. My role has been to act as the central voice of the project in its infancy and ensure that, once the group makes decisions, we continue to move forward without losing momentum.

Give us an idea of how much the menu options have changed since last academic year. What changes stand out most to you?

We have many new and exciting options at our restaurants this year. We’re focusing on bringing local and sustainable seafood to more of our stations, and making plant-forward options a focus of every station. We’re paring down some of the beef offerings that we have, including a beefless Monday initiative. To support this, we’re introducing new and exciting options on Mondays, such as shrimp burritos, potato soyrizo tacos and black bean rajas burgers. Our goal is to make Mondays about trying something new and exciting, not about missing the beef.

Additionally, we’ve made changes to our pricing structure and the presentation of several of our Rooted in Flavor dishes. This makes them more accessible, and provides more value to students and the campus community.

I’m most excited about one of our most subtle changes: making artisan, handmade pizza dough at OceanView out of whole-grain flour. It’s small changes like this that will have a huge impact for us.

What has been the impact of this program on staff, so far?

With any large rollout, having the entire team on board is key. In our education and training about this program, we’ve chosen to highlight the “why” — for example, why we should decrease beef or the impacts of whole grains on health. Our team is excited to embrace the program, and have their voices heard through our trainings and discussions.

What was most challenging about developing this program? How did you and your team overcome that challenge?

The most challenging part was knowing where to start and getting everyone to buy into our initial set of goals. We leaned on the student community to find out what they’d be interested in trying and what they’d like to keep the way it is. We conducted more than a dozen tastings, surveys and tabling events during spring quarter to capture this feedback. It’s something we plan to continue.

How did you and your team break the rollout of this program down into small, achievable steps, so the work wouldn’t become overwhelming?

We formed six subcommittees that each worked on different areas: menus, recipes, procurement, systems, training and engagement. It was my role to ensure that each group had the resources it needed to meet its milestones. Each group had a chair, and the chairs would meet on a biweekly basis to collaborate and make sure that each aspect of the program was in harmony with everything else.

What have you learned from your involvement in Rooted in Flavor? What are you still learning?

I’ve learned that there is a huge interest from our student community, especially when it comes to food sustainability. I’m excited to learn more from our students as we continue our efforts.

What emerging trends in sustainable food initiatives inspire you?

There’s so much good stuff out there! Something we’re excited about doing is urban farming here at UC San Diego. We’re opening our second aeroponic tower farm at Canyon Vista this fall. We already have one at 64 Degrees, and we’re excited to grow our own produce a few feet away from where it’s served.

Do you have any favorite books or films about food or food sustainability?

I would highly recommend the Eat-Lancet Commission on food sustainability. It’s a scientific report highlighting the changes we need to make to our diets to accommodate a growing population to avoid critical climate change impacts.

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