Healthy College Dining: 101

Innovative dining programs are changing the university landscape. Be inspired by these healthy initiatives — and make changes on your own campus!
Best College Dining Halls
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Stressful late-night study sessions, boozy frat parties and hectic schedules are a rite of college passage — all of which inevitably lead straight to notoriously high-fat convenience foods. But now university administrators want to declare the infamous freshman 15 a thing of the past, and they're revamping cafeterieas in an effort to improve students' bodies and minds.

“Food and academics are all tied together," says Steven Miller, Senior Executive Chef for Cornell’s dining program. “You need to eat the right foods to provide energy, to apply your mind to your studies.”

Today’s college cafeterias are moving way beyond pizza and meatloaf. With varying palates, diets, and allergies, co-eds’ dietary needs are more diverse than ever. And universities are listening.

On-Campus Farms and Gardens
Berea College in Kentucky is bringing new meaning to the term “eating locally.” With more than 400 acres of farmland, the College’s agriculture program provides much of the produce for the dining halls that feed more than 1,300 undergrads each day. In fact, it's mostly students that carry out the day-to-day farming operations.
“Nationwide, colleges are seeing that students want more healthy and local options,” says David McHargue, Director of Food Services at Barea, “and they want their voices heard.” He says the importance of eating local foods has grown past the point of being a "trend" and doesn't seem to be slowing down. “We expect to spend between $150,000 and $175,000 this year on local foods. When I started in 2005 that number was about $2,000.”
McHargue’s team provides nutrition info for each item they serve, both in the dining halls and online. They also check comment card boxes in the dining halls daily to be sure students’ needs are being met.

Social Integration
Today, most schools are trying to reach students in as many places as possible. This not only means the usual posters hanging in the dining halls themselves, but also communication online through social media including Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Binghamton University’s NourishU is one such program. Events and menu changes are posted online, while coupons and daily deals are often tweeted. The New York State university also sponsors events like health fairs, healthy cooking demos, and dining hall tours throughout the year.
“The best way to reach students is through direct interaction,” says Binghamton’s dietician Alexa Schmidt. “That way they’re engaged and aware of what they’re eating.” The university recently placed second in the National Association of College & University Food Services most innovative nutrition program contest.
Working with Binghamton’s Eating Awareness Committee, dietician Alexa Schmidt has also worked to develop a Market Fresh station which focuses on nut-free, gluten-free and dairy-free options.

Charitable Eating
Some Universities are doing more than just offering healthy options, they’re also giving back. Schools like Columbia University and American University have partnered with Table for Two USA, which adds a 25-cent surcharge to one of the dining hall’s existing healthier, low-calorie meals (which are flagged by a Table for Two wrapper on pre-made items, or a placard next to a steam table item). The company then uses that extra money - and, in effect, the extra calories - to provide meals to hungry children in Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia.
The idea is twofold: to end obesity in developed countries and end hunger in underdeveloped ones.

Student-Driven Projects
Sometimes the biggest challenge is when you can’t get to the cafeteria. “When I moved out of the dorms, that’s when I gained weight,” says Katie Anderson, an incoming senior Clinical Nutrition major at the University of California, Davis. She found herself in a rut: constantly busy and turning more often to quick, processed meals. “No one ever taught me how to grocery shop,” she said. “There were no resources for that type of thing.”
As a project for an honors program she developed “Cooking With Katie,” a 20-page book on shopping, cooking, and staying healthy during post-dorm life. In partnership with the school’s dining halls, each month a different “Cooking With Katie” recipe card will be available in the cafeteria and a PDF of the book will be available on UC Davis’s nutrition assistance website in the fall. Topics range from beginner cooking techniques to basic shopping lists and budgeting.
“College is already a really stressful time. You don’t need the added stress of worrying about how to stay healthy,” Anderson says. “Having good nutrition here will set you up to be healthy for the rest of your life.”

Push for Change on Your Campus

  • Contact the dining services department directly. Every college is different, but a good place to start is the top. Want Meatless Mondays? More gluten-free options? Voice your concerns! Even though most colleges use an outside dining hall catering service, there’s usually at least one person from that company who works solely with each university.

  • Start or join a club. Many large colleges have student committees dedicated to being eco-friendly and supporting healthy student life. Syracuse University's Campus Sustainability Committee is made up of students and faculty and meets quarterly to discuss new sustainable initiatives. They also host events like lecture series and contests (currently the Campus RainWorks Challenge asks students to find the best use for stormwater to benefit the community and campus). Contact those groups to see how you can get involved.

  • Click around. Your college’s website undoubtedly has a page devoted to dining options. You might find some options you didn’t even know were out there.

  • Start your own Weight Watchers meeting. Once you have at least 15 people who are interested in starting the Weight Watchers program, call 1-800-8-AT-WORK to set up a free information session on how to bring a meeting to your campus.

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