Talia Trackim loves Thursdays. It’s the day when the Syracuse University dining hall she frequents serves chicken tenders with macaroni and cheese.
The food service staff make gluten-free versions of the two comfort foods the sophomore from Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, can actually eat. Trackim has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that makes her extremely sensitive to gluten found in certain grains, including those used for traditional pasta and poultry breading.
Syracuse’s accommodating menu is the new normal at college campus dining halls. Gone are the days of gummy stews, carb-packed casseroles and tasteless soups that had students craving the prospect of home cooking during Thanksgiving break.
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.”
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.
This generation of students, used to international flavors and dining out with their parents or friends, also 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.
That menus are tasty and carefully curated is no accident.
College food operations need to sharpen their game because an increasing number of national restaurant chains are opening on or near campuses.
“It’s a shifted landscape. We have to be as competitive as fast food and even fine dining. We want to retain that dollar and not have them go off campus for that experience,” said Lisa Feldman, Sodexo’s director of recipe management. “If you don’t have something that’s the same or better, the student will go to the taco truck.”
She said trends tend to bubble up faster at colleges because students are so active on social media. The company surveys students every semester and can implement a new dish in little as two months.
“Everybody from two-year technical colleges up to four-year Ivy league institutions wants to have a food program they can be proud of that drives satisfaction with their students,” Technomic’s Henkes said. “It’s not only about providing an education anymore.”