Annie B. Copps / January 13, 2020

Campus dining services quite literally fuel student wellness, and the challenge of meeting dietary needs and requests calls for all kinds of innovation

Historically, a meal in a college dining hall—like most institutional food service operations—meant a bland, calorie-laden journey of getting the mealtime job done. A dining hall was a place to gather and refuel, but little more. Menu items with nicknames like “mystery meat” were common, because when food is overcooked, over-sauced, and flavorless, it’s anyone’s guess what’s actually on the plate.

But these days, college cuisine has taken a 180-degree turn for the better on most campuses, with more options, better taste, better presentation, and better nutrition.

But there are still hurdles for the students making meal choices, and those who are charged with nourishing them.

For many young adults beginning college, the experience of making decisions about how they manage their day is a transition as they separate from familial routines and establish their independence.

“Dining halls are a place where a lot of community happens. There is a level of humanity that has to happen here when you’re dealing with young people who are trying to find their way,” says Crista Martin, Director for Strategic Initiatives and Communications for Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS).

Testing the waters, students are now able to do what they want, when they want, and with whom they please—and that includes what and how much they eat. For better or worse, parents and other concerned influencers are not available to provide guidance and set limits on their cravings and choices.

As concern for nutrition and sustainability continue to grow on campus, college food service operations must keep their whole student body in mind when it comes to meal planning. There is a wide range of dietary restrictions and choices informed by social, ethical, and religious mores, and a more diverse student body means feeding a population accustomed to diverse cuisines and foodways.

Attention to allergens, ingredient intolerances, the special needs of athletes, and awareness of those with eating disorders are all part of the algebra of designing meals—and the equation must balance financially.

In December 2019, U.S. News and World Report offered a list of “10 Colleges with Healthy Dining Options.” There were recurring themes among the standouts, including Cornell, Emory, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Stanford: healthy options communicated well to students, more plant-based options, and programs in sustainability (which included on-campus farms and active waste reduction awareness).

“Institutional food choices affect each student’s health — how they feel today, tomorrow, and in the future,” said Denise Ward, a spokesperson at Georgia Institute of Technology.

“At Georgia Tech Dining Services, we understand that incorporating a variety of healthy options like plant-forward meals and whole fruits and vegetables, while taking into account food allergies and sensitivities, are key to a student’s overall health and well-being.”

Across the US, college dining operations are raising the bar to improve student dietary life with innovative recipes, top-notch ingredients, and a deeper awareness of needs. Dining service directors and their staffs know what works, in part because they follow trends and solicit student input and communicate with colleagues at other schools.

“We’re all sharing our best practices,” says Martin of HUDS. “We’re all fighting the same fight, which is that we care about the planet and we care about the student’s health. And hospitality is all about yes.”

Most successful dining services programs don’t rely on trends and statistics—they engage those they are serving, and encourage feedback via bulletin board, suggestion box, email, and student dining committees to encourage open exchange. HUDS recently implemented a texting service, so students can offer feedback instantly.

“It lets us know right away and it gives the students a voice,” says Martin.

Campuses with several dining locations do their best to cover as much culinary ground as possible, but sometimes choices can be overwhelming and temptations strong.

“We asked students how important it is to them to eat healthy and an overwhelming percentage of them say it’s super important to them,” says Martin. “Yet, the most popular things we serve are things which no one would suggest to you are good for them, but they’re comforting.”

David Davidson, Dining Director of HUDS adds, “We put out very healthy options, but they don’t always make that choice. We tried labeling foods green, yellow, and red to indicate how healthy they were. We implemented the idea from a local hospital which had had success with the program. It didn’t go over well here. You know a whoopie pie isn’t the healthiest option. The red labels made a lot of students uncomfortable--it caused a big outcry related to eating disorders in particular.”

There is also “preference” versus “need” to consider when feeding varied populations. Any group will have preferences about seasoning or prefer one ingredient over another, but some choose not to eat certain foods for social, cultural, or religious reasons.

From online menus with nutrition-tracking capabilities to foods compatible with halal, gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian diets, colleges are taking steps to ensure students’ health and meet their dietary needs.

Most campus dining outlets offer weekly menus online, so students can look at their options well before mealtime.
At Duke, that information includes nutritional and ingredient content.

“We utilize the Cbord system for online nutrition and allergen content and display an allergen grid at each location,” explains Kirsten Marinko, Marketing Manager for Duke [University] Dining. “We also use PIDs [product identification tags] to label menu items and to display items that contain allergens and/or dietary preferences.”

Within dining halls, the labeling of foods on the buffet line would seem pretty straight forward, but different campuses use different approaches. Like the failed “red, yellow, green,” system at HUDS, labeling can be tricky.

Bon Appétit Management Company, a California-based, on-site restaurant group working with corporations and other institutions, handles food services for more than 100 universities, from Johns Hopkins and M.I.T. to Emory University and Reed College. Terri Brownlee, the Director of Food and Nutrition, found that with serious allergies, they couldn’t reliably label ingredients on a daily basis.

“We give big picture, descriptive ‘menu-ing,’” says Brownlee. “Such as ‘bread crumb crusted chicken breast with mozzarella in a creamy marinara sauce.’ The person that needs to consider wheat knows there is bread, the creamy indicates there is dairy. Brownie versus ‘walnut brownie’ gives them the indication that there are nuts. If they want to know at a sub-ingredient level what is in the food, we can pull a label and let them know right away.”

HUDS has been using menu cards in their dining hall which offers the name of the dish “and as much as can fit on the card,” says Martin. “You’ve got to go to the website to see the rest of it.” As of early 2020, they’ll ensure labeling of the top eight allergens on the buffet tags, something they hadn’t done before.

Depending on the population and campus size, some dining services can offer nut-free dining halls or vegetable-focused destinations. Most dining services label food as kosher or halal, and if there’s enough demand, dedicated locations for appliances.

“We have a kosher kitchen at Hillel House which serves dinner six nights a week and lunch on Saturday. In each dining hall we have a kosher corner with a kosher microwave, toaster, and refrigerator.”

It’s hard to miss the uptick in numbers of people being diagnosed with serious food allergies or ingredient intolerance issues. This population must be offered nutritionally sound, good-tasting meals without being stigmatized.

“All the students get welcomed with various orientations. They get lots of information, emails fly around, specifically for kids who have a food allergies,” says Martin. “For the most part students manage their own food choices, and they rely on the school to provide them with information necessary to make their decisions. We ask you to register any food allergy, particularly if you’re expecting any accommodation.”

Campuses using Bon Appetit encourage students with difficult-to-manage disorders to file with the college as having a disability services issue.

“We encourage students to do that. It makes things very clear,” says Brownlee. “We are very open and honest about what we can do and what we feel less comfortable about. There are cases where a student might be asking for an exception to a meal plan and we work with the university to help them make that decision.”

Meeting the needs of students with eating disorders can prove more difficult. Most eating disorders stem from emotional or psychological origins, so it’s rarely a matter of offering a different menu item.

“Sometimes we know and can keep an eye out,” says Martin. More often, eating disorders are hidden, and meals can be a stressful time. An “all you can eat” dining hall is fraught for a young person who is over- or under-eating, or needs to eat meals more than three times a day. If students opt to identify themselves, an accommodation can be made.

“A student might need more, smaller meals throughout the day be it an eating disorder or a physical disability and the dining hall is closed,” notes Brownlee. “We can work with the student directly if we know.”

Some students develop eating disorders while in college and others relapse because of the stress of new surroundings, exams, and an inability to manage their conditions.

The beginning of new semesters and exam periods are often triggers, and for athletes, big games and playoffs can be a difficult time. Because of privacy issues, the dining services team can only do so much.

“We’re in the same population as the students and our staff knows when we haven’t seen someone for dinner three nights in a row,” says Davidson. “They’re like the eyes and ears. Especially when you’re talking about stress and eating disorders. If our team sees anything is peculiar, they’ll pass that information to the house staff, who takes it from there.”

Brownlee follows the same course, “even if a student came to us, saying ‘I need help,’ we would connect them with a campus resource, I would not engage them. It’s not fair to them,” she says.

At the University of Texas Austin (UT), Dining Director Rene Rodriguez and his team feed the 7,400 students living in campus housing, as well as a portion of 51,000 total student body and faculty who purchase separate meal plans.

“We’re one entity—housing and dining. When they sign up to live with us it comes with a meal plan.”

In his effort to feed so many a balanced menu, he does his best to use parameters.

“They’re paying us for their meal plan so we have to stay within a budget. We have to make sure we maintain the quality of the food, the nutrition of the food, and can we do it sustainably.”

To meet quality standards, he has 16 trained chefs on staff and two registered dieticians to keep track of nutrition components in every meal. Like most universities, there is an Office of Sustainability and a sustainability coordinator who participates in dining services decisions that go beyond procuring ingredients.

Under the umbrella of sustainability falls recycling, food waste (in preparation and disposal), and energy use, and many schools have developed innovative ways to improve sustainability.

“We no longer just cook and serve food,” says Rodriguez. “We’re educators, too.” UT operates two gardens and utilizes that produce in the kitchens, as well as running bi-weekly farm stands staffed with campus chefs and dieticians to provide professional information and guidance.

At Duke, being sustainable means operating deliberately rather than doing what’s easy or convenient.

“We think it is an essential part of our mission to honor our role as stewards of our community’s well-being,” says Marcus Carson, Assistant Director for Sustainability and Quality Control for Duke Dining. To meet that end, Duke Dining partners with the Duke Campus Farm, a working farm.

“It is dedicated to catalyzing positive change in the ways we grow, eat, and think about food, by using sustainable methods to grow fruits and vegetables.”

Sustainable doesn’t just mean how it’s grown—it also means where. Keeping food sources as local as possible is a high priority. “We really focus on fresh, whole ingredients, and looking at the local food system,” says Brownlee of Bon Appétit.

“We give our chefs a high level of ability to purchase locally and regionally and we commit 20 percent of our spending on local purchasing programs.”

It’s natural for sustainable operations to focus on sourcing and waste management. But sometime a solution can be as simple as the size of the blank slate that handles your many options. Most campuses have done away with trays and have switched to smaller plates.

“Smaller plates are part of our well-being commitment to help people manage portions. If they have a smaller plate they’re going to put less on it,” says Brownlee. Portion control means not just the health of the student—it means less waste. Bon Appétit sites great success in waste reduction by placing tasting spoons at all their food stations. “They get to taste lots of different foods and If they don’t like it, they don’t put it on their plates.”

Food services try to anticipate all the needs, and respond to those they haven’t foreseen, and meet as many preferences as possible. But at the end of the day—or three meals, each and every one of them—there’s only so much you can do.
“We have more than 6,500 kids from more than 100 countries, from every state in the United States, from every diversity of economic experience and food experience, it’s a wild balance of whom you’re comforting,” says Crista Martin of HUDS. “On any given day somebody doesn’t feel comforted, and somebody does, or somebody doesn’t feel fed to their personal standard, but somebody else does.”

In a community that’s extremely diverse, that’s even more amplified.

“Of course we want all the students nourished and happy,” says David Davidson of HUDS. “But we aren’t the food police and we can’t be all things for everyone. We can try.”

Annie B. Copps is a Boston-based chef, cookbook author and food journalist.