Universities now cater to a wide variety of diets, such as vegan and locavore, and today’s college “cafs” resemble fast-casual chain restaurants with a focus on healthy, protein- and vegetable-centric, customizable dishes.
The emphasis on BLTs as well as Ph.D.s has made higher-education food service an estimated $18 billion industry, according to Technomic. That’s up from $12.4 billion a decade ago and close to $1.89 billion in 1972, when the Chicago-based food industry research firm started tracking it. In 2019, the industry is expected to approach $18.7 billion.
“Food is a differentiator,” Technomic senior principal David Henkes said. “It’s a recruitment tool. It’s table stakes now. It’s an expectation, as every university raises its game across the board.”
In an era when colleges are using everything from their fitness facilities to luxury dorms to lure students, high schoolers can turn to a variety of online sources to scan college food ratings as they make their application choices.
Food is “part of decision for a lot of people,” said Katy Wahlke, the University of Cincinnati’s food services program director. “It’s part of their experience every day. It’s part of what they look forward to. It can make it or break it if they’re lining up two schools and all things being equal.”
For some students, it’s a concern about allergies, such as nuts, dairy or soy. Others are committed to eating only local foods. Another group has religious dietary restrictions, such as halal and kosher. All want to be sure their food regimens, whether it’s vegetarian or keto, are addressed.
One out of 3 Americans follows a specific lifestyle diet, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation, which found that the number is even higher among those ages 18 to 34.
“There’s not as much variety like there is for normal students, but for me, having celiac disease, a lot of people don’t know what it is or it’s not taken seriously,” Trackim said. “Having food cooked on a separate line meant more to me than having variety.”
The 19-year-old Syracuse student said the school, which runs all of its own dining halls, does a great job of keeping gluten-free safe for those who need it. The menu is designed to parallel what unrestricted students are served, and signs explain that diners must use a new plate if they want a gluten-free side dish or entrée to avoid cross-contamination via serving utensils.
This generation of students, used to international flavors and dining out with their parents or friends, have more sophisticated palettes than their predecessors. Universities use Korean barbecue, vegan pasta bars and mezze platters to compete for students the same way they boast to prospective students about instructor-to-student ratios, semesters abroad options and fitness centers.
At most schools, freshmen are required to live on campus in kitchen-less dorms and pay for a dining plan, but upperclassmen are free agents. Those first-years’ average cost of food – the “board” in the classic “room and board” term – was $4,650 during the 2015-2016 academic year versus $3,190 in 1986-1987, according to the U.S Department of Education. Dining plans don’t cover meals during the summer or school breaks.
Compare that to $3,829, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found was the average annual spending on food by one American in 2016.
While snazzy menu extras may explain some of the difference between what students and nonstudents pay, university meal plans must cover extras that nonstudents don’t have to deal with, like cafeteria workers’ salaries and dining hall utility bills.
At the University of Cincinnati, 6,500 students out of 40,000 are on the meal plan, which is serviced by Aramark, one of the three food-service giants with contracts on U.S. college campuses. The menu includes ramen bowls, tapas and a custom cherry-chocolate bear claw pastry – an homage to the school colors of red and black and the mascot, the Bearcat.
Food may not be as big as football at Texas Christian University, but campus dining, run by another big food service player, Sodexo, is still important. It’s mentioned in both digital and hard copy recruitment brochures and on the virtual and in-person campus tours, according to spokeswoman Holly Ellman.
“The food is so good many faculty and staff members purchase a (meal) plan,” she said.
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