On This Campus, Chicken Tenders Are a Teaching Tool

Chronicle photo by Steve Kolowich

Chicken tenders, new and old: John Hopewell, executive chef at Lebanon Valley College, came up with his own version (at left) to replace the frozen variety, which had become a Thursday tradition on the campus.
April 30, 2015

Once upon a time, Lebanon Valley College had a peculiar way of stirring the moral imaginations of its students. In the 1930s and early 40s, at the beginning of each academic year, the upperclassmen, along with faculty members and people from the town, would stage an elaborate hoax culminating in one student’s gunning down another with a revolver in full view of the new freshmen.

The horrified freshmen would typically rush to alert the town police, who were in on the ruse. Unknowing witnesses volunteered to give blood. One year, a freshman hopped on the running board of the car that was supposedly taking the "victim" to the hospital and tried to clear traffic by making siren noises with his mouth.

The vigilance grew so intense that it became a liability. According to a 1966 history of the college, the faculty voted to discontinue the "Annual Murder" shortly after World War II because they worried that former servicemen enrolled at the college might intervene with force before learning that the altercation was fake.

By comparison, the efforts to reform a more recent Lebanon Valley tradition, "Chicken Tender Thursday," might seem like small fry.

And yet here in the college’s dining hall, Lebanon Valley is now engaged in a moral reckoning. A philosophy professor and the general manager of the dining service have teamed up to make lunchtime a teachable moment, and to take a more ethical approach to the business of feeding a campus.

That means trying to get students to care about where their food comes from. Provoking them into action with a phony murder is easy. Inspiring vigilance about food ethics is a taller order.

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The dining hall at Lebanon Valley is a low-ceilinged cavern with tables and chairs in yellow and lime green. On Thursdays, tubs of chicken tenders are stocked at several of the buffet-style stations in the serving area. The kitchen is careful not to run out of chicken tenders, said John Hopewell, the executive chef. "There’d be a mutiny."

The origins of Chicken Tender Thursday are unclear. The tradition dates back at least 20 years, said Marty Parkes, a spokesman for the college. No one seems to remember the college without it.

"Ooooooh, Chicken Tender Thursday," said a woman who answered my first call to the Lebanon Valley communications office. "It’s been around forever. It’s what everybody looks forward to on Thursdays."

Well, not everybody.

Robert T. Valgenti, an associate professor of philosophy, hated Chicken Tender Thursday. He saw it as antithetical to the principles of conscientious food consumption. The tenders were shipped frozen to this campus, in southern Pennsylvania, from a food-processing plant, a thousand miles away, operated by a corporation that has regularly run afoul of federal agencies, environmentalists, and animal-rights advocates.

Thinking From the Gut

About a decade ago, Mr. Valgenti began to realize that food provided a good jumping-off point for talking with students about the relevance of his discipline to their daily lives. The abstractions and thought experiments that are standard fare in philosophy courses can be too heady for some people’s tastes, he said. When it comes to food, people think from the gut.

"Students don’t know much about philosophy, but they know what they like and don’t like," he said. "So if we want to make that philosophical move of, How do we go from opinions to reasoned positions about things, I think food is a good place to start."

The professor started talking with Bill Allman, general manager at Metz Culinary Management, which runs the dining service at Lebanon Valley. Together they plotted ways to blur the borders between the classroom and the cafeteria.

Mr. Valgenti’s students would design research projects that would examine food culture and suggest ways the dining hall could operate more ethically. Mr. Allman agreed to help the students collect the data they needed for their projects, and to be open to making changes based on their findings.

One student led a project to measure the amount of uneaten food left on students’ plates, a practice the dining hall has continued using to reduce the amount of food it prepares and then throws out. Another came up with the idea for a "taste lab" that would serve as a proving ground for new, healthier additions to the menu.

On a Thursday in early February, students noticed something different about their chicken tenders.

They were thinner and rounder, noted Patrick Vares, a senior.

They were more flavorful, said Isaac Lu, also a senior.

They were darker than before, observed Meghan Fowler, a sophomore, who found the change unnerving.

When Mr. Allman had looked into the origins of the most-consumed items in the kitchen’s inventory, he was pleased to learn that many of them, particularly the dairy products, came from Pennsylvania. But the chicken tenders stuck out: They were cut and breaded in Arkansas, frozen, and sent to Lebanon Valley in big, gas-guzzling trucks.

So Metz decided to try something new. One day in late November, Mr. Hopewell, the chef, cut a fresh chicken breast in half. He added garlic, black pepper, and rotisserie seasoning, rolled the pieces in flour, egg, and bread crumbs, and deep-fried them.

Mr. Hopewell and his staff thought they tasted much better than the frozen tenders. Mr. Allman agreed.

But would the students accept them? Data from the "taste lab" suggested they would. In December, Andrew Deihl, a junior majoring in business, recruited several dozen classmates to the basement of the student center, where they participated in a blind taste test: the corporate tenders versus Mr. Hopewell’s homemade recipe.

The focus group gave Mr. Hopewell a slight edge. A large-scale mutiny seemed unlikely. Not that some students weren’t wary of the change when the new tenders debuted, in February.

"People seemed salty about it, like, ‘The chicken’s got to be the way it was — we can’t have new chicken around here!’" said Mr. Vares. But any such outrage was short-lived. "People got over it," he said.

Benefits Outweigh Costs

Lebanon Valley’s new approach to food service has come with some challenges. Carving, seasoning, and hand-breading 400 pounds of fresh chicken meat — brought in from New Jersey — takes a lot more work than thawing a shipment of tenders. For Mr. Hopewell and his staff, prepping for Chicken Tender Thursday now starts on Monday. "Labor costs have increased significantly," said Mr. Allman.

But the benefits outweigh the costs, college officials say. The push to reduce waste seems to be working: Metz now spends about $2.41 per plate, down from $2.54 in the fall of 2013. Multiply the difference by 416,000 plates each academic year, and the savings add up, said Mr. Allman.

And, of course, Lebanon Valley can now pitch prospective students and their parents on the college’s undergraduate research opportunities, its healthful dining options, and a narrative about the liberal arts in action.

Rallying students behind the dining hall’s efforts, however, remains a challenge. The hazards of the modern food-industrial complex tend not to evoke the same sense of alarm as, say, one student shooting another with a revolver outside a freshman dormitory. For many students, the dining hall is a refuge from the rigor of the classroom. It is a place where a chicken tender can be just a chicken tender.

"This is a place where students want to turn their brains off," said Mr. Valgenti.

But that is precisely what makes the dining hall such a promising way in, said the philosophy professor. Sometimes the best path to a student’s brain is through the stomach.

"At the most basic level, eating is often one of the places where we’re the most mindless and guided by habit," he said. "But I think when we engage it properly, it can give us oftentimes one of our deepest opportunities to be mindful."

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.