A world-class facility for human physiological research is now located in historic Gwynn Hall on the University of Missouri campus. This innovative program was brought to life in the basement of Gwynn Hall in March of 2014 with the opening of the MU Nutritional Center for Health (MUNCH).
MUNCH is a research metabolic kitchen designed for studying the physiological effects of food. The elements of the research kitchen are combined with the MU Physical Activity and Wellness Center (PAW) to use the most detailed approach of human subject research.
An established research facility combining several colleges is rare, but Chris Hardin, professor and chair of the Nutrition and Exercise Physiology Department, saw the opportunity to make the ground-breaking cooperative happen at MU.
Hardin’s goal was to “build the bridge between agriculture and medicine” by creating a research facility with the influence of the College of Human Environmental Sciences, the School of Medicine and the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR).
“The vision for MUNCH was to help do what we talked about for years … we always talked about what a strength it is to have a college of agriculture and school of medicine on the same campus,” Hardin said.
The project has been a long time coming for Hardin, who has spent an extensive amount of time working out the details of his idea since he became chair of the department in 2007.
The space started out as a rundown, rusty laboratory and was transformed into a sparkling new research facility after Gwynn Hall was renovated. Hardin had originally planned to gradually revamp the basement on his own, but the university decided to restore the entire building. Having to postpone any work on the center until after the renovation seemed like a setback in the beginning, but was worth the wait for Hardin and his team at MUNCH.
“We had a more complete renovation … we had it done properly,” Hardin said.
Hardin acknowledges that if it had not been for the major funding of donors his project would have become “shelf-space,” because there was not funding available when he initially proposed the idea to the university. The project received a large investment from CAFNR, as well as funding from alumni and outside donors, to get MUNCH through its building process. The efforts of the three colleges have fostered the favorable outcome of the research facility.
“All three deans have been remarkably collaborative in ensuring its success,” Hardin said.
The atmosphere of the research kitchen is like that of a restaurant or commercial kitchen. The workspace is equipped with shiny, stainless steel hardware and immaculate organization. The difference one will find in the MUNCH kitchen is that, instead of normal kitchen tools such as measuring cups and spoons, the drawers are filled with scales and weight boats for precise measurement to control dietary composition. It is necessary to use such detailed measurements to manipulate and track everything each research subject consumes.
Lana Merrick, whom Hardin calls the “Geek Iron Chef,” heads up the menu planning performed in the MUNCH kitchen. Merrick received a culinary degree from a technical school in Springfield about 20 years ago. She heard about MUNCH in 2008 while studying in the MU Food Science program, and joined Hardin and his team following graduation. Merrick works with the other research staff of MUNCH to structure what the research subjects will eat in each study.
MUNCH is also used for educational purposes with a teaching kitchen component. The teaching kitchen is equipped with the technology to display cooking demonstrations to an audience . 4-H and other youth organizations often visit the MUNCH facilities, so the teaching kitchen is a great part of the education of visitors.
MUNCH will likely not be Hardin’s last new and innovative program on the MU campus. He has plans to build a recreational facility in what he calls “a win, win, win, win situation.” The new proposal is called MU Life, and would create a space for faculty and graduate students to exercise — away from the busy atmosphere of the student recreational center.
Part of Hardin’s goal with the recreational facility is to reduce healthcare costs of the university, which otherwise draws funding out of education and research. This facility would also have an educational purpose, as it would provide a space for nutrition students to do research and use techniques learned in the classroom in a realistic atmosphere. Hardin is presently working on the proposal and funding for MU Life and hopes to get the plan going within the next several years.