News Date: 
Thursday, November 18, 2004

Source: USA Today

By Sharon Jayson

For USA Today

November 18th, 2004

ATHENS, Ga. — Drab cafeteria fare is gone. Restaurant-savvy students are now digging in at college dining halls that have atmosphere and a multitude of choices.

It's no wonder that pounds are adding up on the student body.

"When I came to campus, pretty much the meal plan was the centerpiece of conversation with any upperclassman," says Travis Smith, a freshman at the University of Georgia. "It wasn't so much 'How are your classes?' It was more 'So, how do you like the food?'"

Georgia's food is award-winning: The Athens campus has racked up more than 55 honors for its fare. Smith, 19, says he eats three meals a day and sometimes returns to Snelling Dining Commons for pizza and ice cream, which are served until midnight.

"I go to all four dining halls pretty regularly," he says.

Unlike in days past, many of today's residence halls don't offer food. To update facilities and keep costs down, schools are consolidating their operations, sprucing up fewer but larger dining halls that are strategically placed around campus, and opening cafes, kiosks or convenience stores, says Mona Milius, president of the National Association of College & University Food Services.

Serving the college market means dining halls look like a cross between a shopping mall food court and a restaurant. Food is often cooked to order in front of the customer.

"We can control portion size and be more efficient, and it increases customer satisfaction with a 'made-just-for-me' feeling," says Bruce Haskell, coordinator of dining services at Michigan State University.

Haskell also says meal plans have evolved from serving breakfast, lunch and dinner at traditional times to more of an all-day service that lets students eat whenever they're hungry. "It's not about the quantity, it's about the flexibility," he says.

College cuisine offers a smorgasbord that even cruise ship patrons might envy. At Georgia, there are 12 varieties of fruit juice. Harvard offers at least a dozen breakfast cereals. There also are exotic ethnic entrees at most campuses. At Tulane, sushi is made to order.

But it's not just about the food.

Many attribute the added pounds — often referred to as "the Freshman 15" — to a lifestyle change. College students tend to sleep later, eat later and go to bed much later than in high school. Many played high school sports, and they are generally less active in college. And college life frequently means late-night pizza, microwave popcorn and the extra calories from alcohol.

India Cheatham, a UGA sophomore, says she didn't worry about gaining weight because she's on the rowing team and burns those calories.

"I eat five times a day," she says, but they're smaller meals supplemented with snacks. "I like to go in and grab a bagel. I can grab an apple on my way to class."

University meal planners must juggle the demands of serving a well-traveled clientele with the necessity of cooking for the masses. While some schools have their own food service departments, others contract with providers such as Sodexho Campus Services. Sodexho feeds students and faculty at more than 900 schools, including Tulane, Northwestern and Fordham.

Although many universities require meal plans for freshmen, students can often choose the number of meals per week and can combine a meal plan with a system that debits meal choices from other spots around campus. Students typically swipe their ID cards to gain entry or pay for a meal. At Bowling Green State University in Ohio, most food is priced à la carte.

At Georgia, where the meal plan is voluntary, food services serve some 30,000 meals a day. The seven-day plan averages $10.58 a day.

During his 18 years there, J. Michael Floyd, head of food services, has watched students seek healthier choices. Like many other universities, his Athens campus offers heart-healthy and low-fat options and provides easy access to nutritional information.

"I see our customers choosing to eat healthy for a meal because they feel like they need to do it," he says. "Then the next meal is the burger and the fries. It's a choice they should be allowed to make — and part of our job is to give them those choices."

Dear Mom, Send Recipes!

Students at some U.S. campuses can get their fix of Mom's cooking, even though they may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Harvard University, the University of Oregon, Syracuse University and the University of Georgia are among campuses that solicit recipes from parents to incorporate into student menus.

This year, Harvard University is expecting even more than the 400 typically received because it’s accepting recipes online. Executive chef Martin Breslin says recipes come from near and far, with such tasty dishes as Spicy Sesame Noodles or Sweet Simmered Beer and Onion. Those who must wade through the recipes agree that a key ingredient is easy conversion from serving six to, say, 6,000.

One parent sent in a recipe for lobster thermidor, says Ted Mayer, executive director of Harvard’s dining services. “It was a nice idea, but…I encourage them to send a realistic recipe.”

Georgia, which has been fielding recipes for its “Taste of Home” program since 1987, awards a commemorative china plate to 100 or so cooks whose recipes are selected each year. The school’s enrollment is more than 33,000.

Beverly Stichtenoth’s son Todd is a junior at Georgia. Her recipe for Chicken Diablo earned the Katy, Texas, mom the plate sitting in her china cabinet. “It’s got a place of honor,” she says.

Gail Dooley of Sioux City, Iowa, won the plate four years in a row. When she was missing her son, Charles Reneau, who graduated in May, she says she would look at the menus posted online to see what was being served. “You spend 18 or 19 years feeding these children every day,” she says. “And then, its not your job anymore.”