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Overview — February 2012

 

Educating the Masses —
One at a Time...


Has this ever happened to you? I was recently at a holiday party where I didn't know many of the other guests and struck up a conversation with one of the other partygoers. When I mentioned that I write about college and university food service, I could tell what he was thinking — “How much can you write about college food? They probably just open some cans, heat up whatever is in them and throw that on a plate.”

Believe me, this isn't the first time it has happened to me, and I immediately told him that that was no longer the case. He admitted that he hadn't been on a college campus in quite some time. He said that when he attended college, the food he used to have when he went to the cafeteria was terrible.

The first thing I told him was that it isn't a cafeteria anymore, it is now a dining hall. I told him that the days of the cattle-chute cafeteria, where students lined up, selected from two different “mystery” entrees and had their food slapped down on a tray, were long gone.

I explained that students now have a wide variety of items from which to choose and in fact, on many campuses, they can go an entire semester without having the same thing twice.

The menu doesn't solely consist of just high-fat, high-sodium fried items anymore. Schools are making more healthy items available to students. Schools are catering to those who want to eat healthy, serving a well-balanced menu many times designed in collaboration with a nutritionist.

I also told him that international cuisines have taken their place on campuses. Cuisines like Japanese, Thai, Indian and Vietnamese are popular choices among students.

He now knows that the dining staffs are not made up of your stereotypical “lunch ladies.” They now comprise chefs from such acclaimed culinary schools as the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson & Wales and others, and with backgrounds in fine dining.

He was surprised to find out that higher education food service is a leader — if not the leader — in sustainable practices, from energy consumption and composting to the use of local and sustainable sourcing. I also let him know that a lot of schools have even stopped using trays. His response: “What will students use to go sledding now?”

One thing he did agree with me on is that students and their tastes have changed as well. They have grown up with this wider variety of choices — the healthy, the international, the local — and expect to have those choices when they arrive on campus that first day.

Even before they arrive on campus, dining is a factor in the ultimate school decision of potential students. Instead of bypassing dining halls on campus tours, some schools have made them a centerpiece of the campus experience.

When you think about it, college and university dining has come a long, long way.

One thing is for sure, during my discussion with my previously uninformed conversation partner, he learned a lot more than he ever thought he would know about college and university food service. One down and a few million people to go.

Gregg Wallis
Managing Editor