Zia Ahmed’s childhood experiences, passion to help students and his true love for being a Buckeye have led to what he calls his “dream job” creating an exceptional, sustainable and student-centric experience as Ohio State’s dining services senior director.
For 9 years, Zia has overseen one of the largest dining services operations in the country which encompasses about 2,800 employees, 30 restaurants across four campuses, culinary production, university catering, delivery service, food trucks and caters to 17,000 student meal plans. He closely tracks sales, monitors customer input and manages new programs, including facility design, menu construction and mobile ordering. He also regularly joins his team in washing dishes and serving customers – pitching in to do anything that enhances the customer experience.
Ohio State’s dining services has grown to become a locally-, nationally- and internationally-recognized operation but Zia contends that his primary focus is nourishing Ohio State students to help them perform academically and thrive. He strives to meet all students’ needs and often meets with student groups and advocates to learn how to best serve a variety of dietary needs.
“We are in the business of student development before anything else,” Zia said. “We want to help students be successful in their academic careers by cooking good food, serving good food and taking care of our customers.”
Zia accredits many of his accomplishments to the supportive staff and university leaders around him that enable him to launch initiatives like large-scale menu diversification at dining halls and the management of the No.1 mobile ordering system in the country.
“I can’t think of a better place to be than The Ohio State University,” Zia said. “There is a sense of pride that is really hard to explain, but you know it’s there.”
Zia Ahmed with a photograph of June F. Kennedy, the first director of dining services. He keeps this picture by his desk to remind him of his roots and all the people that paved the way for him to do what he loves.
Coupled with this pride for Ohio State and student development is a deep-rooted passion for food service. Growing up in Bangladesh after a famine, Zia grew to appreciate the value of nutrition along with the importance of compassionate and transparent food service.
Zia’s goal is to educate students about the complexities of the global food system. It is his hope that educating students now will lead to improvements in food production and consumption when Ohio State students become future global leaders and influencers.
“We want to expose the food system to the next generation,” Zia said. “Our goal is to spread information so that students can become better-educated food consumers and producers.”
Zia co-chairs the university’s Food Sustainability Panel, which seeks to move toward 40% local and/or sustainably sourced food by 2025, and through dining services, he has increased local food consumption and the use of sustainable food and packaging products. In addition, as a hands-on learning experience, Zia coordinates a Central America abroad trip for students to meet and learn from coffee growers.
Zia has been recognized with awards from the university, like the 2019 Distinguished Staff Award, and the 2016 National Association of College and University Food Services. With every award he’s received, his humility and collaborative nature shows in his effort to honor others.
“I’m simply a conduit, and the biggest thing for me is figuring out how to recognize all of the other people involved with these achievements,” Zia said.