During college, certain things are optional—whether to join a fraternity, whether to get a job while enrolled—but one is not, and that is a campus dining. With hundreds or thousands of students signed up for meal plans, the college runs on the fuel meals provide. Moreover, colleges nationwide are marketing to high school students (and potential transfer students) and are well aware of the need for an attractive a first-rate dining experience is to prospective students. According to a recent USA Today article, what all these colleges now have in common is “a priority for good eats.” Every university, as a business, depends on the tuition of its students, and “the people” have spoken.
A New Kind of Food Quality
The millennial and post-millennial generations have a knowledge and appreciation of food that is unprecedented. They understand nutrition, seek out exotic flavors, are more adventurous with textures, value the factors of sustainability and fair trade and, perhaps most importantly, are willing to pay for it all. They express their identity through the foods they eat, as older generations once did with clothing and music. They care about health— 77 percent of millennials exclude from their diet those foods they think could be harmful.
Culinary Visions Panel recently conducted a survey of 450 millennials in an effort to learn their dining expectations. They mostly used buzzwords like “fresh,” “local” and “whole grain” in describing the food they wanted, and over half of those surveyed also considered such food characteristics as “grass fed/pasture raised,” “hormone free,” “fair trade” and “organic” to be important in choosing what they ate.
All of this raises the stakes for campus dining. The oldest millennials are now closing in on 40, meaning that some of them have started looking at potential colleges for their own children. With the mindset of health-conscious parents combining with that of children who have been taught to instill those values, it’s likely food quality may be a factor—perhaps a significant one.
Today’s dining scene has changed perceptibly, and not just in its nutritional value. Food allergies such as gluten and soy, not to mention a growing desire among students for more meatless and dairy-free options, has college cafeterias across the nation stepping up their game. Gluten-free and vegan options are on display at the Rise Café at Boston University; Becker House Dining Room at Cornell University offers sushi and sesame broccoli with tofu; and the Fresh Food Café at Johns Hopkins University sources much of its food locally and embraces the eco-friendly “Meatless Mondays” movement. These are just a few of the exceptional examples; many if not most of today’s campus dining halls offer at least a vegetarian/vegan station.
For the first time, thanks to a new and improved campus dining culture, the “Freshman 15” isn’t quite the dreaded phrase it used to be.