How on-campus food has evolved in recent years.
Campus dining has evolved from cafeteria-like settings with limited food options to bustling, open spaces filled with choices, flavors and aromas from around the globe.
Campus Food and Dining Today
From the all-vegan dining hall Mean Greens Cafe at the University of North Texas to four certified gluten-free kitchens at Syracuse University, colleges and universities across the country are catering to students’ dietary preferences and needs.
Campus food has become a top deciding factor for prospective students and is now a category in The Princeton Review — an iconic leader in college admissions services. The largest campus dining operation in the country, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has scored an A+ rating from students for four consecutive years. Like several other campuses, it is answering the call for healthier and plant-based options for students who are vegan or vegetarian or those wishing to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet.
While plant-based options are high on the list, food allergies are too. In a recent Journal of the American Medical Association survey, an estimated 10.8 percent of U.S. adults reported having one or more food allergies; however, young adults may be more likely to practice risky eating behaviors such as not notifying others that they have an allergy or not carrying medication. As students transition from high school, managing food allergies on a college campus might seem daunting.
College dining facilities are taking steps to accommodate students with food allergies, such as establishing food stations that are free from the eight major allergens. Some, like the allergen-free dining hall at Michigan State University, offer separate facilities with an on-staff registered dietitian who can help students navigate options. Many schools have adopted a food allergy safety protocol so students with severe allergies can feel confident in their choices. Several schools also offer assistance through a student access or disability office and food allergy support groups.
While variety and catering to diners’ dietary preferences and needs are important considerations, many foodservice management decisions are driven by a focus on sustainable food practices.
Sustainability is a key tenant in the campus dining landscape. And it’s tackled in several ways, from menu concepts and planning to sourcing and procurement and waste reduction.
Menu concepts and sourcing
Instead of starting with a specific menu in mind, chefs draw inspiration from what’s seasonally available from local farmers and vendors with preferred agricultural practices. Chefs can design produce-rich menus that focus on seasonal variety using foods available in the region. And some keep the source even closer. The University of North Texas maintains a hydroponic garden that can produce up to 800 heads of lettuce per week using about one gallon of water.
Foodservice management may seek vendors and operations that cultivate crops best suited for local growing conditions, use water efficiently, reduce chemical application and provide favorable conditions for workers. They also may look for sustainable practices related to fair trade, organic foods and animal welfare or prioritize small- and medium-scale independent operations or cooperatives over corporate ones.
To reduce the institution’s carbon footprint, chefs may adopt blending concepts, such as replacing half the meat in burgers, tacos or meatballs with chopped mushrooms.
Food managers are taking advantage of Generation Z’s adventurous palate. Instead of making over grandma’s chicken and dumplings with low-fat alternatives, they might introduce new, globally inspired flavors that are healthier and plant-forward. For example, chefs may incorporate flavors from the Mediterranean and traditional food cultures around the world that prioritize plants.
Considering the current food environment on and off campus, students and parents alike are more concerned about where their food comes from. In response, many colleges and universities have become more transparent, proudly highlighting locally and sustainably sourced foods both in dining halls and campus marketing materials.
Addressing food waste
Schools tackle waste in many ways. Trayless dining encourages students to “take what they’ll eat and eat what they take” — an approach that seems to work. A study in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition found that eliminating trays yielded a 32-percent reduction in food waste over a six-day period and a 27-percent reduction in dirty dishes. Other tactics include offering smaller portions and providing menus online to encourage meal planning. Chefs and foodservice staff are actively developing menu concepts to emphasize whole grains, plant-based proteins and abundant produce.
Equipment purchases can prioritize reducing energy and water use. Some colleges and universities work to reduce, reuse and recycle by providing bins throughout dining halls, using biodegradable and compostable serving utensils and setting up programs to recycle cooking oil into biodiesel.
Future Trends in Campus Dining
Significant strides made in campus dining over the past decade have established a foundation for healthier offerings, sustainability and variety.
As demand for a more retail-like dining experience edges out the cafeteria feel of the past, it is evident that students want options. Foodservice operators are responding with a marketplace where choices abound and abundant natural lighting invites students to dwell with a laptop in energy-efficient spaces. They are meeting students’ service-style preferences with amenities including on-campus convenience stores and open kitchens with freshly prepared foods available at different locations on campus and throughout the day. With convenience being a key desire, delivery robots are running to fill the need.
Through rain and snow, mobile vending machines or snackbots are roaming campuses to deliver snacks and beverages with a few taps of an app. Sometimes, there’s no need to leave the dorm. Foodservice providers at George Mason University have partnered with delivery robot companies to transport takeout to 40,000 students, faculty and staff. Some choices are compatible with on-campus meal plans, making it an affordable option for students. Like other outside food delivery services, the opportunity to view a menu, set the delivery point and track food in real-time is almost expected.
The trend toward delivery robots shows no signs of slowing down. These near-automatons are expected to continue to gain in popularity and soon will be commonplace — at least on enclosed or walled campuses. Robots still need to get over a regulatory “speed bump” to roam open campuses where street safety is a concern.
As food and nutrition science evolves, we might see an increasing number of colleges and public school systems going the way of the recent New York City Public School ban on processed meats or other foods. But this is yet to be seen.
What we do know is, from locally sourced foods to vending machines on wheels, campus dining options are more extensive than ever. Being exposed to these options in young adulthood might shape how diners make food choices throughout their lives.
Best College Dining Halls for Vegans. Best Colleges website. Accessed September 20, 2019.
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Ift18: Generation Z Set To Impact The Future Of Food And Drink Innovation. Mintel website. Published July 16, 2018. Accessed October 7, 2019.
Kiho K, Morawski S. Quantifying the Impact of Going Trayless in a University Dining Hall. J Hunger Environ Nutr. 7:4, 482-486. Accessed October 6, 2019.
New York City Public School ban on processed meats. The New York City Council website. Published March 22, 2018. Accessed October 7, 2019.
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