December 11, 2017
Focus on Food & Drink

Colleges' battle for students' hearts & minds extends to their stomachs

PHOTOS/GRANT WELKER
The new dining hall at Worcester State University's Sheehan Hall uses cage-free eggs and lettuce grown in a hydroponic trailer.

If attracting students is an arms race for colleges, not every campus can build the most elaborate recreation center, luxurious dorm or massive football stadium.

But even much smaller schools can give their students food in dining halls that alumni would hardly recognize from their college days. They're paying more attention to allergy needs and using ingredients from as close to campus as possible.

"The biggest thing now is listening to students and giving them what they want," said Meghan Thulin, a district marketing manager for Chartwells, the food service provider at Worcester State University.

For decades, dining at Worcester State was confined to a small space on the second floor of the Student Center. When Sheehan Hall opened in 2014, the university finally had an ability to give students what they want.

Assumption College has its own allergy-free station at its Taylor Dining Hall. Cook Diana Pelletier shows off chicken, rice and green beans.

Worcester State installed a station serving only food without common allergens like peanuts, milk, eggs and gluten. A fridge accessible to students is stocked with items like gluten-free bread or lactose-free milk. The only eggs served are cage-free, chicken is antibiotic-free, and lettuce is grown year-round in a hydroponic trailer-sized indoor space called the Leafy Green Machine.

Butternut squash with farro and cranberries

The College of the Holy Cross landed fifth this year on Bon Appetit magazine's list of the country's healthiest dining options for students. The school was lauded for what Bon Appetit said was one of the first allergy-free college kitchens in the country at Kimball Hall.

"We know that today's students are passionate about the local food movement as well as sustainability, but they're also passionate about good food," said Lynn Cody, the dining services marketing coordinator at Holy Cross.

Holy Cross has created some dishes in a collaboration with a first-year program seeking to add dishes using minimally processed ingredients or containing five or fewer ingredients. This fall, the college started serving roasted butternut squash with farro and cranberries, an Egyptian dish called koshari, and lentil-and-kale stew, a dish created by two students.

Worcester State's allergen station offers students with food allergies and sensitivities a place where their food won't be cross-contamined.

"We try to purchase locally as much as possible, which in New England can be a challenge," Cody said. Holy Cross buys produce from the Worcester Food Hub and the Regional Environmental Council's YouthGROW farm less than a mile from campus.

Herb-crusted roast beef

Assumption College expanded allergy-free options in 2016 with a serving station at Taylor Dining Hall serving food free of the most common allergens. Food served at that station is prepared by a cook assigned exclusively to that station to ensure food doesn't come across potential contaminants.

On one day in December, the station was serving grilled chicken, rice and green beans. The station is popular enough many students eat there regularly, especially those looking for healthier fare, said Diana Pelletier, the cook assigned to the station.

A small room at the edge of the dining hall called My Zone has gluten-free and other items, along with waffle irons and toasters to use. Another station has traditional fare like pizza and pasta, but another is serving herb-crusted roast beef, roasted vegetables with balsamic vinaigrette, stuffed pasta shells, and sour cream and chive mashed potatoes.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute has a dietician on staff, an area set aside for allergen needs and donates food waste to local pig farms, landing it 24th on the consumer website LendEDU. Clark University says it uses hand-cut vegetables, house-made sauces, and locally sourced food when it can. Eco-friendly paper products are used as part of an environmentally friendly initiative.

Gourmet dining priorities

Last year, author Malcolm Gladwell created a stir when he criticized Bowdoin College in Maine for, as he put it, spending on gourmet food instead of students' financial needs, which he deemed a moral problem. With college costs continuing to rise, Gladwell said the college had misplaced its priorities.

But gourmet dining at colleges has become a bragging right for schools looking to top lists of the country's best dining halls.

Princeton Review – known for its more traditional college rankings – now also includes "best campus food" along with academics and student demographics. Men's Health, Business Insider, The Daily Meal and the websites niche.com and collegerank.net all score the best dining hall options, based on surveys and ranked on factors like healthy options and dietary flexibility.

One of the best campuses for dining is right in Massachusetts. UMass Amherst tops Princeton Review's list, was second on Business Insider's list, is 11th on The Daily Meal's survey, and eighth by Niche.

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