Yes, Sushi's on the Meal Plan
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Like millions of high school seniors across the country this month, Colin Braley of Oakton is trying to decide where to go to college.
Three schools have accepted him and he's making last-minute visits to each campus, comparing what they have to offer. On his check-off list: academics, dorms, students and something just as important.
The last decade has brought huge changes to many campus dining halls, as colleges ramp up the quality and variety of food to attract an increasingly sophisticated -- and picky -- generation of students.
Braley, 18, a cross-country runner at Oakton High School in Vienna, is typical. While food isn't necessarily a deal-breaker when it comes to choosing a college, it's still high on his list.
"Food is a pretty big part of your life at college," he said in a phone interview from West Lafayette, Ind., where he was visiting Purdue University. "If a school doesn't put a lot of effort into its food, I figure it doesn't reflect well on their attitude toward their students."
Braley's comments don't surprise Robert Franek, author of the Princeton Review's guide to "The Best 361 Colleges." The annual survey asked 110,000 students 73 questions ranging from academics to social life to food. The guide includes a list of the 20 schools rated tops in dining.
"Students first want to find a college that's a good academic match, but then they start to look at overall quality of life and food is a very good indicator of that. When we send out our surveys, students never hold back in answering that question," Franek said.
For those who think college food is still mystery meat served in "slop lines," as one dining director put it, it's a new culinary world out there.
Think sushi, Moroccan stew, brick-oven pizza and Asian grills where students can choose their own ingredients and sauce. Food is often paid for with a debit card system that allows students more flexibility than the old three-meals-a-day plan. And instead of cafeterias with harsh lighting and minimal decor, schools are replicating food courts and marketplace designs that offer different food venues with bright colors and comfortable seating.
"Kids today have a much more sophisticated palate than 20 years ago. They're used to eating out, and they like seeing the food being made expressly for them. They want upscale items -- that's key," said George Butler, dining director at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, where students dine on Brazilian chicken with chimichurri sauce and Moroccan lamb tagine. The small, four-year-old college, located southwest of Boston, is ranked No. 2 for food in the Princeton Review guide.
Butler said he learned the hard way that students didn't want ordinary food. "I started off [at Olin] with basic items like turkey tetrazzini and honey-glazed corned beef, but the kids told me they wanted Asian food, Spanish food, curried food. I had to quickly make things more sophisticated."