Behind the Scenes: Paula Caravati, Nutritionist for U.Va. Dining Services

August 26, 2008

At an institution as large as U.Va., it’s easy to forget that it consists of many individually moving parts. We may take for granted the roughly 13,500 employees who keep the whole operation humming every day. Who, for instance, keeps all the UTS buses on the road? Who watches what students eat? Who flies critically injured patients to the hospital? The fall issue of U.Va. Magazine highlights nine such employees -- a few of the small pictures that make up U.Va.’s big picture.

In anticipation of the new academic year, UVA Today will in the coming days publish excerpts of the profiles, which were written by Sierra Bellows, Michelle Cuevas and Paul Evans.

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"Americans think of foods dichotomously: either good or bad," says Paula Caravati, the nutritionist for U.Va.’s Dining Services. "But to me, it’s all good. It’s just a matter of moderation."

No food prude, Caravati has introduced baba ghanoush, sushi and fruit smoothies, but hardly bans french fries. Celebrating food-as-fuel and food-as-fun at Newcomb, Runk and O-Hill dining halls, she helps her demographic avoid the "freshman fifteen," offers nutritional counseling to all meal-plan enrollees, and writes fact-filled pamphlets that underscore her proud claim: "This is not your mother’s meal plan. We have a lot more choices. I love food. I’m from New York City. I’m Italian American. I travel a lot. And so I know a thing or two about menus."

After earning a Ph.D. in nutrition from Virginia Tech, Caravati managed the dietary needs of cancer patients in a Medical College of Virginia outreach program. She saw clients in private practice in Richmond, planned menus for nursing homes, and, 14 years ago, began working at the University. Dining options at that time were limited and "old-fashioned—pot pies, comfort foods, a lot of fat," she says. While attempting to expand the recipes yet trim the calories, she also advised coach George Welsh and the football team. Lean protein, high fiber and veggies trumped fried foods as she prepared the pregame menus. Today, the dining service’s stations, such as a vegetarian option called The Granary, continue Caravati’s culinary reformation.

Only about 4,000 students signed up for meal plans when Caravati started. Now that number has doubled, a gain she attributes to the greater variety of dining choices. "We have many students … whose tastes are quite sophisticated," she says. "And we try to keep pace."

A true food zealot—"Dieticians too often talk about nutrients, when we should also talk about enjoyment," she says—Caravati is also serious about healthy eating. Mindful of cultural and lifestyle changes that range from "the end of sit-down dinners, super-sized fast food, too much work and too little exercise," Caravati sees her role as an advocate for dining hall patrons who wish to eat wisely, but also very well.

Photo by Luca DiCecco