Fresh Food, Rotten Kids?

From our roomy banquette in the foodservice world, we at KaTom have an excellent view of changes in institutional dining. As the letters from college admissions departments roll into in-boxes across America, we’d like you to have the benefit of our preferred seating. Here’s the skinny on current college food.

If you follow the restaurant business and think millennials are being pandered to there, wait till you see the treatment they’re getting at the campus cafeteria or, more likely, bistro, exhibition kitchen, or farm-to-table popup!

At Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, students can order pizza delivered anywhere–a classroom, a park bench, anywhere!–on campus. The college is one of several national best-food nominees where the dining is run by the boutique services provider Bon Appétit. They procure from local organic farms as well as the college’s student garden. A “menu mail” service alerts kids about what’s to eat where.

St Olaf

Northwestern has a weekly hot cookie bar, which students can enjoy with milk fresh from a nearby dairy. Students can also enjoy local produce, here on appetizing display at a college-hosted sustainable-food summit. Northwestern is recognized by Peta for being vegetarian-friendly.


Peta also gives the University of California at San Diego a thumbs-up for its Roots vegan snack bar, part of a breathtaking “reimagined” dining hall complex called 64° (for the average ocean temp, Dude).

UCSD Dining Hall

Not too far away at Stanford, late-night dining and cooking demos go down at the “Wall of Fire,” an outdoor kitchen featuring an eight-spit rotisserie.

Stanford Outdoor Kitchen

As industry readers of this blog might imagine, Cornell’s top-notch hospitality program makes it a great place to eat overall, with the best of the best available to “hotelies” like this blogger, who writes, “Every house on West Campus also has a pantry, where chefs from the dining halls put extra food at the end of the night. To prevent chaos, each pantry has a special key code that only house residents know, so only house residents can access their own pantry.”


Speaking of secrets, the Johns Hopkins student in this photo might not realize that elsewhere on campus, there’s baked brie and jazz on offer at the massively popular weekly Sunday brunch.


Same As It Ever Was?

Eye-rollers notwithstanding, the restaurantification of higher-ed dining is not news. Indeed, media stories about improved campus food have become a cliché in their own right. “Say goodbye to mystery meat,” the Wall Street Journal told us in 2002. A dozen years later, Business Insider announces, “Forget lukewarm meatloaf and limp salads. These days, college dining halls are serving high-quality, inventive food, much to students’ delight.” And, “Gone are the days of mystery meat … in our nation’s college dining halls. A new epicurean era has dawned on campuses across America.”

UMass at Amherst: They haven't had this spirit there since 1979.

UMass at Amherst: They haven’t had this spirit there since 1979.

If indeed a new era has dawned, it did so in the 1980s with the wave of takeovers, mergers, and acquisitions of foodservice giants like Saga, Marriott, Sodexo, Aramark, and Compass. Literal hospitality and customer service gradually took over from the “captive eating” orientation of cafeterias and commissaries–in parallel with the rise of foodie-ism and the new chef- and restaurant-reverent culture.

Early adopters of the food-court, multi-venue and trayless dining approaches aside, it took most colleges till the mid-2000s to achieve the transition. Because of the recession, many are only now completing renovations and capital projects begun years ago. In terms of key performance indicators for college dining services, change has been slow indeed. And freshmen still steal from the cafeteria at Duke. To summarize, if you’ve been on a college campus in the last 25 years, you’re pretty much up to speed.

Good News

What’s genuinely new in college dining is probably not spoiling the children. Nor is it bankrupting America, financially or intellectually. We’re seeing a greater variety of food made vastly more accessible, and above all, integrated with the rest of college life in a way that stands to enrich the culture as a whole.

Last September, to serve students in a brand-new residence hall, the University of Washington opened not a dining area, not a set of concessions, and not a meal program but a 17,000-square-foot grocery store. According to UW Dining Services, the District Market “generally does over 3,000 transactions daily.”


There and elsewhere, grab-and-go dispensing can roll in on food trucks and be found nested within micro-restaurants. Technology like apps for online shopping, delivery, and food availability are reducing the costs of goods and operations, in part by eliminating waste.


Earth Day tweet by UC Riverside-owned food truck “The Chameleon”

Best of all, dining and food in general seem to have moved closer to the center of college experience, both within the curriculum and outside it. As in life beyond college, we believe that’s where such essentials belong.

The Tufts Culinary Society, cofounded in 2008 by Alix Boulud, daughter of Chef Daniel Boulud, hosts community food events, classes, and chef demos in a state-of-the-art study kitchen.


Food-science guru Harold McGee and Chef Ferran Adrià were among the headliners at Harvard’s Science and Cooking public lectures in 2014, the fourth year of a wildly popular series inspired by a groundbreaking course of the same name at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.


UMass at Amherst dining now

Finally, for very lively evidence that eating on campus is evolving in a culturally healthy way, try a taste of Spoon University.

FireShot Capture - Where to Eat in Knoxville on Graduation_ - http___ut.spoonuniversity.com_2015_0

This publication calls itself “an everyday food resource” but as a business is actually a beacon of brilliance in the cluttered morass of online food media. More than 3,000 students weigh in on food topics that go well beyond campus, of which more than 100 are home to their own Spoon University “chapters.”

Message to parents? The kids are all right–even with a few extra pounds.

Elaine Evans
Elaine Evans Elaine Evans is thrilled to blog for KaTom, where her work in restaurants, bars, catering, and artisanal food has caught up at last with her career in journalism and public relations writing. Connect with Elaine Evans on Google+