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AGRAWAL: Harvest Café versus Atrium serves stark contrast

Harvest Café, located in the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health building, is a great contender for the best meal swipe on campus. – Photo by

Located on Cook campus in the picturesque New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health building, Harvest Café is the only meal swipe option that deserves the hype it gets. Harvest is a plant-centric cafe that was primarily created to help combat Type II Diabetes in young adults and focus on reducing obesity rates in New Jersey.

The concept of "Eat well, live well" might seem like a lofty slogan at first, but in the case of Harvest, it is not just lip service. It directly ties into the third and 12th United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which focus on good health, well-being and responsible consumption and production. Clearly, a lot of intricate planning went into launching this place to make it sustainable, including sustainably sourced ingredients from farms and the use of compostable utensils.

Harvest focuses on preserving environmental resources through its practices of recycling, reusing and minimizing waste. Every day, Harvest transforms more than 400 pounds of vegetable scraps into compost.

A lot of the credit for this goes to Ian Keith, the chef and manager of Harvest Café. A second-generation graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Keith thought that campus dining halls were in dire need of change, and he took the initiative to begin planning for Harvest.

He said in an interview that Harvest was included in a campaign called Menus for Change, a "collaborative research run by Stanford University and the Culinary Institute of America to change collegiate dining options, and Harvest has been one of the first products of this campaign."

The Menus of Change University Research Collaborative uses college dining halls as "living laboratories" to research and innovate, allowing experimental science to create applicable, real-world solutions, as opposed to traditional academic research.

A wholesome swipeable meal at Harvest consists of a hot entrée with choices of protein — usually chickpea fritters, chicken and salmon — one side and a drink, all for one meal swipe. Other combinations you can do are soup and a cold sandwich or a smoothie and overnight oats from the smoothie bar.

One cannot help but wonder if such initiatives are scalable or if they serve more as a model that is challenging to replicate in larger, less controlled settings such as the Atrium.

A major drawback of Harvest is its limited operating hours, accepting meal swipes for merely two hours every weekday. This restrictive window of availability poses a significant inconvenience, especially in a bustling campus environment where students' schedules vary widely. For a place that puts so much emphasis on sustainability and healthy living, this limitation undermines its mission of accessibility to the Rutgers community.

All dining halls and retail options fall short in terms of quality to Harvest, but the Atrium is the worst of all. A comparison between Harvest and the Atrium is warranted because both are newly opened dining options that differ greatly in many aspects.

Operating with almost no healthy options, the Atrium is a fast-food court serving processed, poorly prepared food that represents the antithesis of what campus dining should aspire to be. For example, rarely is the chicken ever properly cooked, let alone seasoned well.

Granted, the make-your-own pizzas and burrito bowls are not as bad as the other food options at the Atrium, but this is not food you want to stuff your body with every day. From an environmental standpoint, the dining space continuously uses cardboard boxes to package food, and the ​​insanely big portion sizes often end up in the trash can.

For newly opened dining services, the Atrium and Harvest are unaware of the unaffordability of their meal options. For those without meal swipes, paying more than $14 for one entrée is not sustainable, pushing people to rely on off-campus food. There is a general need to lower the prices of on-campus food to be welcoming to students from all financial backgrounds. 

Requesting a decent, nutritious and reasonably priced meal should not be too much to ask for. There is an urgent need to transform the Atrium, whether that be by following the model of Harvest and integrating some of its key elements of food quality and sustainability, or by opening multiple Harvest locations around campus with reduced prices. If the latter, the College Avenue campus needs this implemented the most.

The success of Harvest proves that sustainable dining is not only feasible but also highly effective in transforming collegiate dining landscapes. Adopting this model as the bare minimum standard for dining hall operations would not only elevate the nutritional standards but also align Rutgers Dining Services with global sustainability efforts, making it an imperative step forward for the health of both the student body and the planet.

Khushi Agrawal is a freshman in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in Digital Communication, Information and Media. Agrawal's column, "Scarlet Perspectives" runs on alternate Mondays.

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