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More Campus Dining Halls Resemble Restaurants, Offer Gluten-free and Other Options 05/24/2012 - The old, cafeteria-style dining campus hall is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Photo: CC--toastforthebrekkieToday’s students are bringing their more sophisticated palates and health-related concerns to campuses and schools are stepping up to accommodate them.

Driven by these new consumer demands, and more creative management, more and more campus dining halls are beginning to resemble restaurants, featuring selections that reflect world cuisine and emerging food trends.

Students are "becoming more sophisticated customers," says Joe Wojtowicz, general manager of Sodexo, Inc.'s Crossroads dining room at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest.

These days, it's common for students to press staff about food options, especially questions about celiac disease, gluten-intolerance, food allergies and vegetarian preferences.

More and more are moving to accommodate dietary restrictions like vegetarian, Kosher or halal, or putting gluten-free or lactose-free choices on their menus.

From higher quality ingredients, such as free-range eggs, humanely raised meats, and fresh, locally produced produce, dining halls are increasingly offering more exotic options like Cuban, Chinese, or Thai dishes.

“It’s not just spaghetti for Italian and tacos for Mexican,” said Rachel Warner, marketing director for the National Association of College and University Food Services.

Many colleges are hiring restaurant chefs, dieticians and nutritionists to oversee the dining hall operations and some are even customizing meals to meet individual student needs or preferences.

“I think that the shift in dining is really driven by the consumers. They come in with higher expectations and are increasingly savvy about the world around them and the different kinds of food,” says Warner.

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More and more, this higher level of student awareness and expectation is driving camp offerings.

At DePaul University, students were asked to vote on whether a particular brand of hummus was suitable at their school.

At Northwestern University, students recently enjoyed a “cruise night” offering food of the tropics. At Loyola University Chicago, students drink hormone-free milk. Students at Northewestern University can choose from numerous kosher options.

One university in Texas offers a vegan dining hall and a Colorado school has a station dedicated to Persian cuisine.

According to Warner, “Students are coming in and they do want to have a little bit more say and more options.”

These dining hall improvements are yielding benefits not just to students, but to their communities.

In 2011, Wheaton College was ranked by the Princeton Review as having the best campus food in America. The dining services are run by Bon Appetit management company.

Raul Delgado, general manager of Wheaton College’s dining services, says “When you look at this, the farthest thing from your mind is a cafeteria…This is a restaurant. And like any restaurant, it’s open to the general public.

Esther Howerzyl, 68, who biked to Wheaton from St. Charles with a group of friends, says the food is "very organic health food and I like all the seeds, the variety of seeds.”

Do you have experience with these evolving campus dining trends, especially as they relate to gluten-free options? If so, please comment below.

Also read a related article: Schools Offering Better Food Options for Students with Celiac Disease, Other Food Concerns. welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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5 Responses:

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said this on
28 May 2012 9:13:35 AM PST
I am moving to a retirement community that provides 2 meals a day and the dietitian says they can accomodate my gluten-free needs. I hope this all works out.

Jeri Rees
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said this on
29 May 2012 4:29:51 PM PST
My son attends University of California Santa Cruz and they also have gluten-free options. However, the employees working in the cafeteria are not that careful about cross-contamination. They will scramble eggs where pancakes have just been made. One girl with celiac disease who works in the cafeteria told my son that if he has celiac disease, he shouldn't be eating in the cafeteria. The campus kitchens need to understand and be more careful about cross-contamination and provide training to their employees.

Tempe Huntington
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said this on
31 May 2012 9:23:57 AM PST
My daughter will be attending Fairfeild University in Fairfeild Connecticut. We have already met with the head of dining services and 2 head chefs. They were wonderful. They showed us around the dining hall where I couldn't believe how many options students had from make your own salad, omelettes and pancakes. There are designated gluten-free toasters and a microwave, as well as a refrigerator stocked with gluten-free items. The chefs told her there was no way to guarantee no one used the toasters and they would be happy to make whatever she wants safely uncontaminated in the kitchen. They will send her a menu every week of what they are serving and she will list what she wants for each meal and have it waiting at the time she specifies. They will even make pizza for her to take outside with her friends. It really is like a restaurant. I hope it works out as well as it sounds!

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said this on
02 Jun 2012 10:24:02 AM PST
My daughter attends Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. They offer high quality, healthy food for all the students in the dining hall. There are large screens posting the menu in the cafeteria, with notations for whether the item is GF, Vegan, Dairy Free, Nut Free (ETC). They are careful with food handling and don't allow students to serve themselves due to contamination issues. There is a separate freezer, toaster, and prep area for kids to help themselves to GF foods and condiments. They also make GF cakes for birthdays!

Karen Broussard
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said this on
06 Jun 2012 12:22:18 PM PST
We've recently begun a big initiative, with the support of NFCA and Udi's, to get gluten-free college students to submit reviews of their campus's gluten-free offerings. It helps prospective students with Celiac disease as they begin their college search. Udi's will be getting their 100+ college "ambassadors" to submit reviews to our site, and our goal is to get all colleges around the country reviewed. There is certainly a range of gluten-free knowledge among campus dining services' staff, but slowly and steadily, more campuses are trying to educate themselves -- and provide for their gluten-free students. You can view our list of places reviewed thus far -- and submit a review of your own on our College Reviews page (linked on the bottom right corner of our home page -- GlutenFreeTravelSite).

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