“We had instant mashed potatoes and instant scrambled eggs and instant this and that,” says Rick Hartt ’70, director of the Rensselaer Union. “There really were food fights. People were suspended from school for these. There are not food fights anymore.”
Hartt says that by the early 1980s the Institute saw the importance of providing better food. Across the country young people were becoming more discriminating about what they ate and aware that they did not have to patronize a campus dining program.
By then, the United States Department of Agriculture had come up with its first dietary guidelines, which nutrition expert Ann Litt says put healthy eating on the map.
“In the late 1970s and early ’80s people started looking at what they eat as a way of preventing disease. Everything changed,” says Litt, author of The College Student’s Guide to Eating Well on Campus. “When I went to college you didn’t know you had to have enough fiber in your diet. Supermarket shelves might have had one kind of whole grain bread.”
Soon, salad bars were the rage, providing “customized” food people had only gotten at home. Young people, in fact, were growing up to expect choices. Mall food courts offered a dizzying array of “cuisines.” Coffee shops no longer merely asked “caf” or “decaf,” and they marketed a homey atmosphere around the clock. Students were becoming vegetarians or vegans at an earlier age and generally more savvy about what they ate.
“College food services saw that it was not just the food they’re serving, it was the whole atmosphere,” says Litt, who lectures on college campuses. “They had to compete with those Starbucks-type places. They wanted the quality and all the choices.”
If food was not a deal breaker for prospective students, colleges saw that a really inviting meal program could at least make a strong impression on their parents. Dining times were extended at many schools. Facilities were upgraded.Sodexho took over service at the Rensselaer Union in 1992 and, two years later, invested in improvements. Four years ago the Institute renovated the spacious McNeil Room, which has become a popular community spot. The McNeil Room specializes in gourmet sandwiches and healthy alternatives to fast food. Students also make good use of the space and study there alone and in groups long after the regular dining hours.
The Commons has been converted into a lively, sprawling dining emporium. Long barracks-style tables were long ago replaced with small tables and bar-style counters. Diners can even choose a room with a large-screen television. Food stations include Asian Pacifica, Pasta Allegro, Deli and Classics, and self-service Kosher and Halal. Baked goods and fruit are displayed in the fashion of an upscale bakery or marketplace.
Ever since research showed that Rensselaer students are unlikely to show up for a morning meal, the school has offered all-day breakfast with cook-your-own eggs and other hot offerings. The Russell Sage Dining Hall does vegan and vegetarian fare and a 10:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. late dinner on weeknights.
Litt, who is a consultant to Sodexho, says Rensselaer fits with the upper-echelon schools she visits. At Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., students have a view of the ocean as they get most anything they want made to order. At the other end of the spectrum are colleges where Tater Tots and fish sticks remain standard fare.
“Some of my friends go to schools where they say, ‘If you can’t identify it, don’t eat it,’ ” says one happy Rensselaer diner, Alexandra Whitener ’08, grateful that healthy eating has spared her the “freshman 15.”
First-year students are required to be on a meal plan. In fact, they account for nearly 1,100 of 2,300 meal plan participants, according to Edick. Six meal plans are offered, presenting different options in dining times. Students also have “Bonus Bucks” added to their plans to give them even more flexibility. “Bonus Bucks” can be spent like cash at Hospitality Service locations in the Rensselaer Union, retail cafés around campus, and concessions; students can even treat family and friends to a meal in the dining hall.
Drawing in upperclassmen is a challenge. Students who are not on a meal plan complain they often get out of class after the McNeil Room closes for the afternoon. Union president Baldwin says he wants the Rathskeller to broaden from its mostly fast-food offerings. Current choices are inadequate for dinner. “I want to see more options, extended hours, and more realistic choices for dinner,” he says.
Hartt says that planned renovations would include “better offerings” and that the ambience and “whole presentation” would be improved.
With all these improvements, student expectations are also on the rise. Many freshmen, for instance, wish dinner would start and end later. For others, the persistent cry is that the school’s food should reflect the same high standards as its academic programs.
“Our course level was rated, what, the third most difficult?’’ asks Naphtali Anderson, a junior studying at the McNeil Room after lunch. “The food should be at least as good.’’
“For $40,000 [a year], I want fresh lettuce every time,’’ adds a friend, Yusef Salhhadin.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is meeting the demand of the current generation for more variety. Survey results consistently call for more choices. But like the mother who returns from the grocery store and hears there is nothing in the house to eat, they are unlikely to make everyone happy.
“Think of your favorite restaurant,’’ says Sodexho’s Dunn. “Now think about eating there 365 days a year.”
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