The “Saga” dining hall at Hampshire College. Photo courtesy of Redjar.
Written by Cleo Bergman
Being a college student, I am no stranger to the complex and often times frustrating balance of finding decent food that meets the needs of every individual on campus. However, one probing question in my mind is how some colleges have phenomenal meals on a regular basis, while other colleges’ dining halls are laughable in comparison.
I started to wonder about the mystery of college food when Smith College, which I attend, experienced a power outage last Halloween eve. All the dining halls could offer were salads and tuna sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Meanwhile, UMass Amherst, which is 30 minutes away from Smith, was able to continue their annual Halloween lobster feast despite suffering through the same storm. I was fortunate enough to have a friend at Amherst, so I was able to experience the lobster festivity first hand. Unsurprisingly, it was delicious, but I was especially impressed that entire families suffering from the blackout from the neighboring town were fed as well. Granted, this university is meant to feed over 20,000 students every day, but what amazed me more than the amount of food was its quality and diversity. According to the Princeton Review, UMass has made top ranks for best college food in the nation as of this year’s rankings.
So how does one college have so much better food than another? My first thought was that cost played the most prominent role. While the university of Halloween lobsters charges its students less than Smith does for their average meal plan, they have a significantly larger student body to make up for the relatively low meal plan cost. Despite their large sum of money, there are other colleges, like Bowdoin College, that have half the population of my school, around the same meal plan cost, and yet they still manage to trump UMass in Princeton Review for the best campus food. So, what gives?
As it turns out, Bowdoin and UMass are incredibly conscious about buying their ingredients locally (purchases ranging from 23 percent to 27 percent of produce,) and they even have student-run organic gardens where vegetables and herbs are grown and then served in the school’s dining halls. According to Bowdoin’s dining website their success is due to their philosophy of serving food as fresh as possible (which involves buying food closer to home – can’t get any closer to seafood than Maine!), and saying no to prepared foods. In other words: quality over quantity. At UMass, where quantity is just as important as quality due to the enormous student body, there is a bakery and a cold food restaurant on campus—talk about fresh!
In comparison to the colleges with the best food, Princeton Review made sure to cover the colleges with the worst food—the 5th worst being SUNY Albany. While UAlbany’s dining website makes no mention of efforts to maintain sustainability or buying locally, it does have a special page for students to order birthday cakes for fellow students, not to mention the complimentary balloons, utensils, and napkins to make the occasion that much more festive.
In an attempt to uncover some of the mysteriousness of UAlbany’s dining, I asked a current student for his opinion: “Some stuff just has no flavor, [there is] no variety, [and the food] gets cold quickly.” And why does he think the food was so awful? “[The cooks] don’t look like people who have a passion for cooking.” It turns out that the University’s cooks are mainly part-time students, and there is even a strange rumor that there are ex-convicts running the kitchen. This points to another important (and not-so-obvious) factor in making the best campus food: the people cooking the food should, theoretically, be happy to be there. While it is apparent that buying fresh, local, and organic food is significant for the campus food experience, the ingredients won’t amount to much if the cooks aren’t satisfied with their jobs.
As Julia Child (a Smith College Alum) once said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients.” If every college had cooks as passionate as Julia Child, and bought their fresh produce locally, college food would no longer be so mysterious—simply delicious.