Gone are the days when college meal times meant an uninspiring trek with a tray to steam tables with a grumpy cashier at the end of the assembly line.
Dining at colleges and universities has grown into a whopping $4.6 billion dollar industry. Students are demanding locally grown, top-quality ingredients for both quickly prepared and more sophisticated meals. They have a well-defined social and eco-awareness and are insisting on a sustainable cuisine.
Sourcing Food Locally
Determined to shape the way future chefs do business, the Culinary Institute of America is the first college in the nation known to have a farm liaison. Paul Wigsten, produce buyer at the Hyde Park, NY campus and a 10th-generation farmer, leads the culinary school’s practice of buying food locally.
Universities like UMass Amherst formed a culinary collaboration with five nearby colleges that resulted in more local buying. The school is also a partner of Seafood WATCH, a program designed to raise awareness about the importance of eating fish that is not endangered.
These days, chefs have taken up residence on campuses everywhere. They are working in attractive kitchens, brightly-lit dining rooms and casual café settings with comfortable armchairs, couches, Wi-Fi access and flat screen TVs. These areas are designed for socializing and studying as well as eating.
A few college campuses have bistros and even fine dining facilities for special occasions. Others organize separate stations offering everything from sushi and salads to coffee and ice cream bars.
Students can sit at a counter, chat with the chef, and learn how to cook. Separate pantries are stocked with fresh ingredients for those who want to prepare their own food.
Another option is to place an online order for freshly-made sandwiches and daily specials to carry out.
Requests for dietary requirements are respected and there is something good to eat at every hour of the day and night in some colleges and universities.
The emphasis at higher education schools has changed dramatically from institutional food to locally grown ingredients. The new college chefs are willing to respond to requests for ethnic foods and nostalgia for Mom’s home cooking.
Getting Started as a College Chef
Though many dining facilities are contracted to Sodexo or Aramark, some schools employ their own staff. The director of food services will almost certainly have achieved a degree from a professional culinary school and have several years of food service experience.
If money is an issue, remember: certain Ivy League colleges, universities and states in the Union encourage lifelong learning by subsidizing undergraduate and graduate-level courses through the Tuition Assistance Plan (TAP) program. This benefit is available to all dining hall employees.
It is a great way to enhance career skills or pursue a personal academic interest. TAP can help finance courses as well as job-related courses. Classes are only $40 at the Harvard Extension School – the most popular choice of staff at Harvard – as well as 10 percent of the tuition at other eligible Harvard programs, including the graduate schools of education, government, public health, design and more options.
The National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) also offers information about internship, scholarships and job openings.
Portrait of Success
Since 1997, Ted Mayer has directed Harvard University Dining Services, (HUDS), the country’s oldest, and one of the largest, self-operated collegiate dining services. He has over 30 years of food service experience to guide him as he leads the delivery of 25,000 meals a day, nearly 5 million meals annually to Harvard students, faculty, staff and guests.
With $52 million in annual revenues, Harvard Dining employs a staff of roughly 600 in 30 operations that include residential, catering and restaurant operations. In addition to dining, Mayer oversees the campus’ debit card program, Crimson Cash, which has grown to annual usage of almost $15 million.
Maybe it’s time to pull up a chair and consider a return to this kind of college life.