Colorado State University Students Cater for White House Visitors during Presidential Rally

You might say Colorado State University student Maggie Weinroth met President Barack Obama over a steak dinner in Fort Collins.

Shortly before Obama was scheduled to speak at an Aug. 28 rally on campus, Weinroth was hefting a hot tray of three dozen medium-rare ribeye steaks through the CSU Animal Sciences Building to feed members of the Secret Service, national media pool and White House staff.

That’s when the president hustled through the building with his security detail and aides, stopping a stunned Weinroth – still gripping the tray of steaks – as she and another student watched Obama stride by.

“I was carrying steaks and wasn’t aware he would be coming through,” Weinroth, a junior studying animal science, recalled of the close encounter. “It was a surreal experience to be within a few feet of the President of the United States. We were working, and we figured we weren’t going to be able to see him speak. We were not expecting him to be in such close proximity, so it was really, really cool.”

The Obama rally marked the first visit to Fort Collins by a sitting U.S. President and drew 13,000 people to the Monfort Quad just outside the CSU Animal Sciences Building. The stop was part of a campaign tour of college campuses nationwide.

As the crowd gathered at CSU, Weinroth and other student members of the CSU Meat Judging Team and Meat Science Quiz Bowl Team assembled for a different reason: They catered dinner for 65 campus guests, including national news reporters, White House staffers and Secret Service agents traveling with the President. The students prepared and served grilled ribeyes, roasted potatoes, green beans, salad and dinner rolls.

The president did not dine with other visitors in the Animal Sciences Building, nor did he meet the student catering crew as he walked through the building en route to the rally stage. Yet the meal and the students drew rave reviews.

“Your team did such a fantastic job yesterday!” a rally organizer wrote in a thank-you e-mail. “The students were professional and on time. I am packing up the President’s traveling pool now … and they are continuing to praise and talk about the food, especially the steaks! I’ve done a lot of these, and I’ve never ever heard the press talk so much about the catering.”

The catering outfit is part of the CSU Center for Meat Safety and Quality, a campus Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence.

The catering group raises money for student participation on the CSU Meat Judging Team and Meat Science Quiz Bowl Team. These costs total nearly $40,000 each year for about 25 undergraduates, and come in the form of travel, lodging and other expenses incurred for top-tier competition.

To raise the money, the meats group annually caters about 50 campus events, which may draw from 10 to 750 diners.

For students on the two meats teams, catering experience is much more than a simple fund-raising tool; it allows students to practice critical concepts, such as food safety, and to interact with consumers.

“Our entire program benefits by providing students with exposure to the last step in the production chain. They gain a better understanding of consumers and their preferences,” said Dale Woerner, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and faculty adviser to the teams.

Plus, students learn to cook a heck of a steak. Prime rib, hamburgers, smoked beef brisket and smoked pulled pork also are in the repertoire, said Woerner, a meat scientist who oversees the catering group. (They’ll grill chicken and portabella mushrooms, too, if asked.)

With help from the catering venture, the two teams have earned impressive hardware for the CSU Animal Sciences Department: The 2012 Meat Science Quiz Bowl Team was national champion, and the 2011 Meat Judging Team was reserve national champion; both competed against university teams from across the country.

The eight students who catered at the political rally didn’t have an audience with the president. But preparing a meal for his posse was plenty fun. And the two who unexpectedly encountered President Obama have a college moment to remember.

“I was with Maggie carrying a bowl of butter for the dinner rolls, and we saw him in transit. We were like, ‘Was that really the President?’ It was a pretty unique experience,” said Jenna Oxenhandler, a junior on the Meat Judging Team. “I definitely called my mom after that.”