By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
At Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, ranked No. 9 for its food, dining director Rick Johnson said students don't want to settle for bland cafeteria food prepared out of sight and then kept warm for hours. "They want fresh food, prepared in front of them, with lots of international options," he said. "And they're willing to pay for it."
National chains such as Pizza Hut, Au Bon Pain and Chick-fil-A are on the Virginia Tech campus, but so are a Brazilian churrascaria offering carved-to-order meat, a pan-Asian grill serving stir-fries and pot stickers, and Carolina-style barbecue made from pork that the school smokes and roasts for 24 hours. The school even roasts its own coffee beans at its Deet's Place coffee bar.
Benjamin Mihal, 19, a freshman from Oak Hill, said the food was just one more plus when he was considering going to Tech. "I like that there's so much variety -- Mexican, Chinese, smoothies." He said he and his friends often hang out in one of the school's food courts because they can all find something they like.
While most colleges sign up with a food service contractor such as Aramark, Sodexho or Bon Appetit to develop their menus and provide chefs, Johnson said Virginia Tech's food sales are high enough -- $30 million from 25,000 students -- that the school can operate its own dining program. "We have more flexibility this way," he said.
The college began overhauling its food program in 1994, when it became obvious that "we were behind the times," said Johnson. "We told the administrators that if the food wasn't good, kids would go elsewhere for school. They're consumers just like everyone else, and they want choices," he said.
Students also want a restaurant-type atmosphere, said Clete Myers, dining director at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., which ranked sixth in the Princeton Review survey. The school modeled its Tortilla Fresca cafe after the Baja Fresh chain and its Madison Bread Company after the Panera sandwich chain.
JMU student body president Wesli Spencer of Virginia Beach appreciates that chefs are attentive to vegetarians like himself. "I find I eat healthier at school than I do when visiting home," he wrote in an e-mail.
At top-rated Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the small private school's executive chef, Ken Cardone, says food is more than just nutrition -- it's social entertainment for students who are often cooped up in their dorms or classrooms because of harsh weather.
"We constantly have to create change because we have a captive audience, especially when the weather is bad," said Cardone, who trained at Johnson and Wales culinary school.
Nearly all the food at the 1,700-student school, from the bread to the desserts, is made from scratch. The school has its own organic vegetable garden and serves locally caught fish and seafood. The dining staff grinds its own hamburger meat and at least twice a month makes homemade pasta. A typical menu might include Brazilian chicken, marinated pork chops with chutney, spicy South Indian curry, Moroccan eggplant charmoula and cinnamon swirl French toast.
"Food plays a big role in recruiting students" to Bowdoin, said dining director Mary McAteer Kennedy. "Students who come here have been accepted at a number of top schools, but it comes down to quality of life, and food plays a big role."
Students also can be activists when it comes to food choices on campus. At Washington University in St. Louis, long known for its good food, students pushed for fair-trade coffee to be used in the school's coffee bars. "They wanted coffee from farmers who were being paid appropriately," said dining director Marilyn Pollack. Students recently recommended replacing Taco Bell with an Asian grill.
But sometimes plain, ordinary, comfort food is what students really crave. Grilled Cheese Thursday -- American cheese on white bread served with cream of tomato soup -- has been a JMU tradition for years, Myers said.
"A couple of years ago we thought we'd put the cheese on Texas toast [a thicker white bread] and add some chunks of fresh tomato to the soup," he recalled. "Oh man, did we hear about that. It was like the world was coming to an end. The comment boxes were stuffed."
Needless to say, things were quickly changed back.