Since 2010, Russ Meyer, former director of housing operations and dining services at the University of Nevada, Reno, has logged thousands of miles on his bike and raised thousands of dollars for the Clark DeHaven Scholarship Trust. The trust provides merit scholarships to students at institutions that are members of the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS). The students must be committed to pursuing careers in accredited programs in the foodservice profession or related areas. Since its inception, the trust has awarded 86 students and raised a total of $346,500.
Here, Meyer shares some details on his 1,000-mile, or Mile High, ride from Reno, Nev., to the annual NACUFS conference in Denver this month.
Q: How did the bike ride fundraiser start?
A: Clark DeHaven was the first executive director of NACUFS. When he passed away, a scholarship trust was set up in his name and I am one of its trustees. Initially, I helped with silent auctions, but when those ended in 2010, I wanted to think of a way I could generate some revenue. That year, the NACUFS national conference was being held in San Jose and I thought, “I could ride there from Reno; that’s only 250 miles, and I bet I can raise some money to do it.” I promoted it throughout the year and raised more than $17,000 that year.
I haven’t ridden every year because some places are just too far, but since this year’s conference is in Denver, it seemed like a good time to do the ride again. Also, since I retired three years ago, I have a lot more time on my hands.
Q: How much have you raised so far?
A: I have raised over $4,000. I’m hoping to raise $30,000 this year.
Q: Have you always been an avid cyclist?
A: Years ago, I injured my left foot and basically had to have my foot rebuilt. At the time, my surgeon told me I shouldn’t run long distances anymore. I had always ridden a bike but started to ride it more and cycling became my exercise of choice.
Q: Will others ride with you to NACUFS?
A: I ride mostly alone but may have friends join me for a day or two. This year, my wife will drive ahead with our trailer and scope out campgrounds and rest stops and other places to stop for the night. We just sat down and plotted out our map yesterday.
Q: Will there be a big celebration when you get to Denver?
A: Nothing official. I’ve had several people offer to buy me a beer and I intend to take them up on those offers.
Q: How can the scholarship recipients use the money?
A: Tuition, room and board, books and other costs for programs in the foodservice profession or related areas. It’s up to them how they want to use the funds, but we review each candidate’s financial information and any existing scholarships so we award the most deserving applicants, taking into account their need for financial aid.
Q: How do you choose the scholarship recipients?
A: We send out applications in the fall and get them back in the spring. Each of the trustees ranks the applicants and then we choose the top six. We have a discussion and narrow that down to the final three. The requirements are that students be either in a foodservice or dietetics/nutrition program at a NACUFS member school. We also look at their academic record, extracurricular activities, recommendations from instructors and employers, and a personal narrative. We get about 25 to 30 applicants each year.
Q: Why is it important to you to help with scholarships?
A: I jokingly say it gives me something to do now that I’m retired. But as a trustee of the scholarship trust, I feel it’s important to contribute and just because I’m retired doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in our industry. I am very concerned with providing opportunities for students to enter the field. College and university foodservice might not have all the glitz and glamour like restaurant or hotel work, but if we can get students interested in working in this segment and they can get a scholarship to do that, that’s great.
Q: What was your role at the University of Nevada?
A: I was the director of housing operations and dining services until my retirement in August 2016. I started in this industry at Michigan State University in 1977 and then took the job at University of Nevada in 1992. My primary responsibility there for 24 years was supervising the contract the university had with Chartwells. We developed a really good partnership such that we were always working toward the same goals, which is not what always happens on contract foodservice campuses. When I got there, we only had a small residential dining facility, but now the campus has a 30,000-square-foot facility and 9 retail outlets, all of which are either brand-new or totally remodeled. We also doubled the number of people on meal plans.
Q: Looking back, how has the college/university segment changed?
A: When I started in this industry, foodservice was not considered the tipping point for choosing a college or university as it can be now. I have heard a few comments from students where they were deciding between two choices and after they ate our food, decided to come here. I didn’t hear that all the time but a few times. Students just expect fresh food and real flavors, which over the last 20 years is a big change and has had a huge impact on design and even equipment.
Now, most of the foodservice production takes place right in front of the students, so you have more equipment on the front line. Our way of displaying food has also changed; even though college and university dining programs can’t make every dish to order, they can display food and serve it to them as if it was fully to order. For example, to showcase premade salads, we put the salads in nice ceramic bowls laid out in rows in glass displays so the students could look at the choices and make their selection. That way, the students got to see their food and all the staff had to do was transfer the ingredients out from the ceramic bowl, toss them with the dressing and serve. Even premade sandwiches we left unwrapped with the top bread partially off so the students could see what was inside.
Q: What’s the most important thing you learned from your decades of work in the college/university foodservice sector?
A: One of the most important things I learned is that I don’t know what students want. My tastes are significantly different from what students have grown up with, so I can’t make the assumption that I know what they want to eat until I talk to them about what they want. The statistics have stayed the same — students still want their pizza, burgers and chicken nuggets. But now they want wood-fired pizza, better burgers and chicken tenders because their tastes have gotten more sophisticated, even if they still go back to the comfort food. It’s all about keeping the lines of communication open.