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Eating on Campus: Trends in College Dining

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You’ve probably heard the jokes about residence hall dining. While the bland foods of the past may be a reality for your parents, it certainly isn’t today. Today’s dining facilities on most college campuses resemble restaurants rather than traditional cafeterias.

Payment for college dining is commonly in the form of a meal plan, the student pays a certain amount at the start of the semester and the details of the plan are stored on a computer system. Student ID cards are then used to access the meal plan. Typically, the college tracks the student’s usage of their plan by counting either the number of pre-defined meal servings, points, dollars, or number of buffet dinners. The plan may give the student a certain number of any of the above per week or semester and they may or may not roll over to the next week or semester.

Most schools offer several different options for using their meal plans. The main cafeteria is usually where most of the meal plan is used but smaller cafeterias, cafés, restaurants, bars, convenience stores, or even fast food chains located on campus may accept meal plans. It is not uncommon for the entire food service operation to be outsourced to a managed services company such as Aramark, Sodexho, and Compass Group.

Today’s students have a more sophisticated palette and a social conscience. The demand for higher-quality food has increased sales for colleges across the country. On-campus student dining purchases rose 3.4 percent in the past year. Student dining was a $4.6 billion dollar industry last year.

Students have demanded healthier options and most schools have obliged. Many have eliminated the use of trans fats. College dining halls are providing ethnic and vegan/vegetarian cuisine on a daily basis. Dietary restrictions, such as those for food allergies, are taken into consideration. There has been a growing demand for organic foods on many college campuses. Students are asking questions like, Where does the food come from?, How is it grown?, and How far did it travel? They’re curious about what happens to the food before it’s served. Pizza and burgers remain favorites, but these days they’re more likely to have feta, bleu or goat cheese rather than American.

The grab-and-go market on college campuses has grown tremendously. The grab-and-go market includes wrapped sandwiches, fruit, snacks, and other portable meal options. Students are often too busy in their daily lives to sit down and enjoy a meal. They eat on the run. Dining services are rising to this need.

Dining services are also providing coffee shops on many campuses. They determined that students spend a lot of time at coffee bars, sitting and sipping coffee while they study. Many schools have put coffee bars where students do a lot of studying – the library. It is helping to draw students into the library and students seem to love it.


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John about 7 years ago John


I agree on your focus on how grab and go has taken a huge part in college dining nowadays. I think because of the way everything is starting to move faster and faster, long gone are the days of sitting down and eating meals in the dining halls. Its sad almost that kids are running out of time to eat even but thats the way it is going.