When it comes to campus dining, the language of food can change as fast as students' majors. A few years ago, few students were familiar with Celiac Disease or gluten-free diets. Those terms, as well as flexitarian, pescetarian, and old standbys vegan and vegetarian, are now commonplace.
"All of the above are major talking points on campus today, and they weren't in vocabularies 10 years ago," says Travis Orman, senior director of dining services with Chartwells Educational Dining Services at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, which serves up to 3,200 meals a day. Above all, students are seeking more nutritious and healthful foods.
"They're becoming more sophisticated customers," says Joe Wojtowicz, general manager of Sodexo, Inc.'s Crossroads dining room at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest.
Now more than ever, those who prefer meat-free diets appear to comprise a sizable percentage of students on many college campuses. Concordia's Crossroads offers a minimum of two to four vegetarian menu options at all times, Wojtowicz says. Cheese pizzas, grilled cheese sandwiches and cheese quesadillas are offered all the time, and items such as a grilled Provencal vegetable sandwich or black bean and cheese quesadilla also appear.
Colleges also try to accommodate students' interest in ethnic specialities. Orman says authentic Mexican is a favorite on his campus. "We honed in on the authentic cuisine and developed 8 to 10 options where the flavors just burst in your mouth. We launched Serranos Mexican Grill in September, and it's been very well received." Offerings include a burrito bowl taco, taco salad and barbacoa, a beef slow braised in garlic, lime, chiles and spices, then shredded, Orman says.
At CUC, Wojtowicz sees growing interest in Mediterranean, and responds with paella, spanakopita, Spanish tapas and other Mediterranean favorites.
North Central College in Naperville is among schools harvesting a community garden to help supply produce to its dining operation. Its community garden is in its second year and benefits from the efforts of nearby residents who tend their own plots of land. "They produce some of the fresh vegetables and fruits used in the college's salad bar and deli bar," says director of residence life Kevin McCarthy. "Those items are clearly labeled to alert students that they are sustainable options from the North Central College Community Garden."
Students and the college's maintenance staff also participate in upkeep of the garden, McCarthy adds.
Students grow up with favorite brand name restaurant food, and some of these favorite "external brands," as opposed to the "internal brands" limited to the campus operations where they are found, are coming to college.
For instance, North Central College offers Papa John's Pizza and Starbucks Frappuccino drinks in its Rolland Center Boilerhouse, the college's informal campus coffee shop, McCarthy says.
Inquiries about menu options are common before students even arrive on campus, specifically questions about food allergies and vegetarian preferences.
Nutritional information is all the more important given the need to avoid foods that trigger allergies, Wojtowicz says. "All our menus are on the Web, and they click through an item to learn the nutritional content," he adds. "And we make sure we label our offerings if they contain nuts."
Students not only want their college dining halls to serve healthful and nutritious cuisine, but want the operations themselves to be green. That's why Orman believes one of the key trends of the next few years will be use of eco-friendly, biodegradable takeout containers manufactured from corn.
"They can go through the dish machine, and they're microwavable," he says. "The more people get on board, the more there will be buy-in, and the more of these products you'll see. It's a win all around."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times