Forget the casinos and cruise ships.
If you are searching for a sumptuous all-you-can-eat extravaganza, head to a college dining hall, a tribute to world cuisine and emerging food trends.
Cuban ropa vieja and vegetarian Chinese egg pancakes. Chia seeds and eggs laid by chickens who have never lived in a cage. Kosher or halal. Gluten-free or foods for the lactose-intolerant. Humanely raised meats and local produce.
Today’s students are bringing their more sophisticated palates and health-related concerns to campuses and schools are stepping up to accommodate them, hiring restaurant chefs, dieticians and nutritionists to oversee the dining hall operations and customizing each meal to each student’s preference.
The days of eating low-cost mystery meat — of whatever else was served — are long gone.
“It’s not just spaghetti for Italian and tacos for Mexican,” said Rachel Warner, marketing director for the National Association of College and University Food Services. “I think that the shift in dining is really driven by the consumers. They come in with higher expectations and are increasingly savvy about the world around them and the different kinds of food.”
Some see the campuses as home to innovative food trends, like at Loyola University Chicago where students drink hormone-free milk and can take a class where they convert used dining hall vegetable oil into renewable fuel. At DePaul University, students voted in a referendum on whether a particular brand of hummus was suitable at their school. At Northwestern University, students recently enjoyed a “cruise night” complete with the flavors of the tropics and a theater student playing the role of the cruise ship’s captain, greeting diners with leis.
“Sushi is no longer considered exotic,” Warner said, noting that a Texas university offers an exclusively vegan dining hall and a Colorado school has a station dedicated to Persian cuisine. “Students are coming in and they do want to have a little bit more say and more options.”
Others see the impact of the restaurant-style dining halls as just another perk driving up the cost of higher education.