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Colleges Are Shaping the Future of Food

Luke Woodard | March 5, 2022


Want to know what’s coming next in the food industry? Get in line (at a college cafeteria).

We talked with leading university food service directors to better understand how Gen Z thinks about food.

Baked ono with garlic and herbs, fire-roasted tomato salsa, apple crepes topped with a caramel-cinnamon drizzle. You won’t find this menu at a local gastropub, but rather at the University of California Santa Barbara’s De La Guerra Dining Commons. Here and at other major universities around the country, students have access to a variety of food choices that would have been all but unimaginable twenty years ago. Chefs prepare the locally sourced ingredients in the center of the well-lit dining room. Some students place their orders at the counter, while others customize their meal with a few taps on a smartphone. The building itself is as eye-catching as the carefully plated entrées inside — the tall glass entrance is more evocative of an art museum than a cafeteria. Walk by on the right afternoon and you might see Jill Horst, head of dining, at a tasting table offering samples of experimental dishes that may end up on next week’s menu.

The students who walk through our doors have very educated palates. They know about flavors and textures from around the globe. My job is actually really fun right now because the students are willing to take risks and try something new. They’re very curious.

Jill Horst, Executive Director of Campus Dining, UC Santa Barbara

UCSB’s food-forward dining halls are part of a growing trend in the culinary world. Within the last decade, college and university dining directors have emerged as dynamic thought leaders in the food industry, pioneering changes that have influence far beyond the walls of their dining halls. Since today’s students are tomorrow’s supermarket and restaurant customers, many in the foodservice and CPG industries have begun looking to colleges to forecast culinary trends.

And it’s not just the menus that are changing. College food service departments across the country are experimenting with ideas that, even just a few years ago, would have seemed far-fetched. Campuses are testing robotic systems in their kitchens and automated vehicles for delivery. There are food locker systems where students place an order on their phone, and just a few minutes later swing by a secure locker to find their meal waiting for them. Some schools are hiring social media teams to keep track of student preferences and to spread the word about limited offers or surprise menus. From menus to automation to reducing waste and increasing sustainability, college food service has become a center of innovation.

More Knowledgeable Than Ever

Twenty years ago, predictable meals dominated the menus of college dining halls. Pizza, pasta, meatloaf and french fries were standard fare at schools across the country. Comfort food was the name of the game. But if you ask anybody who has had the pleasure of dining at virtually any major college in the last few years, they will tell you that this is no longer the case.

At The Ohio State University, Senior Director of Dining Zia Ahmed says that the biggest change he’s observed throughout his career is how students are making much more informed decisions about their food preferences. “They still love eating chicken tenders and fries,” he says, “but food diversity and sophistication have changed tremendously over the last two decades. Their palates continue to get more and more complex.”

Staying on top of quickly-shifting cultural tides — indeed, perhaps even influencing them — is a big job for anyone, especially when you’re responsible for feeding up to forty thousand people every single day. In order to maintain a presence and refine his sense of what his students want to eat, Ahmed holds regular tasting sessions with them. Any items that prove popular progress to a limited release program which he says “gives us even more data about what the future of the menu might look like.”

College dining halls have offered vegetarian options for many years. Ahmed recalls that, for a long time, vegetarian meals were the sole “special accommodation” he would offer alongside the traditional comfort food staples. But, for years, vegetarian meals were something of an afterthought — simple fare left to sit beneath a heat lamp for those few students who did not eat meat.

Plant-forward dishes have now taken center stage, and while not all of them are strictly vegetarian, students are changing their relationship to protein. While the trend isn’t quite a large-scale rejection of meat, Dustin Cutler, executive director of dining services at Cornell University, sees it as a shift in the spotlight. “We’re using meat as more of a side dish,” he says. “It’s still there, and we want the quality to be higher than it’s ever been, but we’re leveraging many more plant-based items in our entrées.”

Pre-COVID Annual On-Campus Food Service Sales in the U.S.

While concerns about excessive meat intake are not new, they’ve become more mainstream in recent years. Students today share a growing concern about the carbon footprint associated with large-scale meat production. “Our students want to know what they are putting into their bodies and they want to understand where it is coming from and the environmental impact,” says Rebecca Selesky, director of culinary services at Michigan State University, the largest dining operation in the country. She’s seen a rise in requests for vegetarian and vegan offerings as well as a greater concern over food allergies. At the end of the day, she says, “plant-forward is what our students are asking for.”

Hormel Foods works closely with college dining managers to develop products that meet the preferences of these food-conscious students. Hormel, Applegate and Jennie-O have all released their own lines of blended burger patties, providing students with an option that captures the best characteristics of plant-based proteins while preserving the pleasures of an old-fashioned hamburger.

“I’m always looking for manufacturers who are open to strategic partnerships,” Horst says, “and Hormel is absolutely one of those for me.”

Ahmed describes the move toward plant-based foods as “a huge shift at colleges across the country.” But what if colleges are not merely responding to changing student demands? Could the relationship between dining managers and their students work the other way too? Ahmed believes that it does. When it comes to the movement toward plant-forward meals, as well as numerous other trends, he says, “We dining managers are nudging these trends a little bit.”

What Goes into A Cup of Coffee

For Zia Ahmed, this interest in international cuisine is a valuable opportunity to educate his students about global food systems.

A few years ago, he took a group of students to El Salvador to visit one of Ohio State’s primary coffee suppliers. The farm’s location was optimal for growing coffee beans: the soil com-position, elevation and shade were all nearly perfect. But despite this, the beans were coming out below their potential.

As it turned out, Ahmed and his students identified some aspects of the farmer’s processing infrastructure that could be improved. Before they left, they helped the farmer raise his drying beds off the ground, allowing air to circulate more evenly and produce a more consistent batch of beans.

This improved the quality of the farmer’s coffee beans to such a degree that, on Ahmed’s recommendation, Ohio State ended up purchasing his entire stock the following year.

“Not only did the students learn what it takes to put coffee in a cup,” Ahmed says, “but we empowered that farmer to compete in a growing market, and now his community knows that there is another way to improve the quality of their product.”

Global Foods Transparent & Authentic

Many food service directors have observed that students are more willing to try new cultural offerings and take some risks. This pursuit of the unfamiliar has led to an explosion of international offerings in college dining halls. Horst attributes the interest in international cuisine to the increasing diversity of the student population as well as the popularity of students traveling and studying abroad.

“Young adults want to travel everywhere,” she says, “and when they are back home, they want to experience the food from around the world.” At UCSB, students go on a culinary world tour practically every night, choosing from Mongolian barbecue, Korean beef tacos, basmati rice bowls, tofu tikka masala and more.

Food, as with everything else on college campuses, has become a point of discussion. As their students are growing more aware of global foods, dining managers are under some pressure to prepare international items in a way that their students deem authentic and respectful of the traditions they draw from. Food is at the center of people’s ethnic and regional identities, and if students perceive a dish to be bogus, they will let the college know, no matter how well-intentioned the idea may have been.

Thirty-eight percent of 18- to 20-year-olds say they usually skip one meal per day or replace one meal with snacks.

Horst recalls the time she offered Israeli couscous. One student took issue with the labeling, demanding that she remove the item or modify it to be more faithful to the couscous that was so important to his culture. They resolved the situation, but Horst came away with the lesson that, “If you call something authentic, it better have authentic ingredients — the ingredients their grandmother used.”

Horst’s anecdote will be familiar to just about any college dining manager in the country. Ahmed believes that the solution is transparency.

“Transparency is a much more relevant word than authenticity,” he says. “Let’s take the example of the rice dish biryani. There are at least twenty kinds of biryanis out there — and that’s before you even add the protein. The way my mom made biryani was very different from the way someone else’s mom or dad might have made it. So what is ‘true’ authenticity? It’s authentic to your individual experience. If I am going to bring biryani to Ohio State, I need to talk about that chef, talk about their experience and explain the background of this particular dish. True authenticity is transparency.”

Ahmed has no doubt that colleges and universities will overcome the challenges of cultural sensitivity around food. He points to the progress that his colleagues have made in the area of labeling, particularly as it relates to specific dietary accommodations.

“Just a decade ago, if I had shown people the future of what we do now with labels, they would have said I’d lost my mind. But we have done it. We identified the problem and began to solve for it. I believe we will be doing the exact same thing for the intersectionality of food ten years from now.”

Ahmed believes that as his students graduate and enter the world as more informed customers, “we will see a lot more global flavors coming together on the grocery store shelves. The biggest change we’re going to see is globalization.”

A Commitment to Sustainable Practices

Closely tied to students’ growing passion for international and plant-forward food is their increased commitment to sustainable practices. Concern about human impact on the planet is at an all-time high, particularly among college age consumers. Solar panels are no longer a niche market. Terms like “carbon footprint,” “regenerative practices” and “net zero” are now commonplace in business lexicon. College students expect that their dining services are doing their part in the global push toward sustainable food systems. “Anything that helps reduce emissions is something we’re focusing on right now at Cornell,” says Cutler. “Part of that is trying to source as locally as possible. We try to find ways to have good local vegetables year-round, and we’re always looking for sustainably sourced fish that are caught with fewer nets.”

Horst echoes this call for pursuing local options, adding that since Santa Barbara is such a tight-knit community, buying locally is especially important to her students. Every year, Horst unveils a week-long sustainable menu, which, she says, “highlights food that’s a little different than our everyday offerings. We focus on things like grass-fed burgers from local farms and other local ingredients. The idea is to draw attention to things that we are implementing throughout the year in other areas of our operation.”

Of Millennials / Gen Z
See moral causes as a reason to choose a brand.

Staying on top of sustainability concerns has been a focus of her career, and she is proud to say that, in the various roles that she’s held on campus, she’s been able to “move the needle in directions that I thought were best for the students on campus and best for the environment.” High on the list of Horst’s sustainability concerns is the environmental impact associated with food production.

“Taste is important to my students,” Michigan State’s Rebecca Selesky says, “but so is the sustainability of what we’re serving — the welfare of the animals and where the products are coming from. Working with suppliers who meet those requirements is a priority for me.”

Small Change, Big Impact

Food Summit

In 2019, Hormel Foods and Harvard University teamed up to launch The Small Change, Big Impact Food Summit. For two days, thought leaders from across the food industry came together to discuss “ways to make the food system more transparent, secure, accessible and sustainable.”

One panel, “Unleashing the Potential of Foodservice,” explored the vital role that foodservice providers play in the global effort to embrace more sustainable and equitable food systems. Five innovators from across the industry discussed the creative solutions their organizations are developing to meet the challenges of the future.

Maureen Timmons, director of dining services at Northeastern University, describes how her team addressed the issue of food insecurity on campus. “Our students can donate their unused meal swipes,” she says. “We store them in a bank, so any student who needs a meal can add these to their own account. It’s a student-run program, so we want to support it in any way that we can.”

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Phones at the Table

For the better part of a year, the pandemic relegated students’ academic and social lives to the confines of their computer screens. While students adapted well, many grew accustomed to high levels of automation and convenience in nearly every area of their lives. As these students return to communal dining spaces, dining managers are wondering what they can do to marry the best elements of high-tech convenience with the undeniable advantages of face-to-face interaction. “Everything has truly been at their fingertips,” Rebecca Selesky says. “We need to ask what we can do to be more efficient and provide our students with the service that they’ve grown accustomed to.”

While the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of numerous technologies, the big question is which innovations are here to stay. Dustin Cutler says, “At Cornell dining, we will not get rid of contactless payment. The mobile technology piece is something that we’ll keep forever.” Selesky is looking to increase the options that her students have for ordering on mobile, with a focus on what she calls “grab and go operations.”

Ahmed arguably knows as much about mobile ordering as anybody in the world: last year Ohio State was the number one campus in the country for mobile ordering. “Nearly 100 percent of our orders came through on mobile,” he says. It put us in a unique position to be successful during Covid. Because of that we were able to have students on campus.”

The question of automation looms large in any discussion of foodservice technology. It’s no secret that large parts of the service industry are looking at automation as a way to manage the labor shortages that are plaguing operations across the industry. While colleges are lucky to have a reliable stream of student workers, they are not exempt from the challenges facing the rest of the country.

“If you ask 100 dining directors what their biggest concern is right now, I would be surprised if 99 of them do not say labor,” Ahmed says. “People don’t want to do monotonous work anymore.”

But the answer is not a kitchen full of robot workers. A kitchen without humans is at odds with the ideals of chef-forward cooking that dining managers have worked so hard to develop. Ahmed takes a utilitarian approach, making an effort not to adopt technology for its own sake, instead keeping the focus on the problems that his team is trying to solve.

“What we are solving for with automation is our labor crisis. We need to find a way where we’re not automating creative work, but instead automating monotonous work.”

Horst agrees with his assessment. “With this technology, who needs to be flipping burgers, making smoothies or fries? Using robotics for that would allow you to use your skilled labor for things that are more meaningful.”

Nudging the Shift

If some of this sounds familiar — plant-forward entrees, global dishes, a focus on sustainability, the integration of technology into our dining experiences — it’s because these trends are not confined to college campuses. Students carry their habits with them into the world once they graduate. Restaurants and CPG companies understand that they need to look at college dining halls if they want to survive in a quickly changing market.

Consider Ahmed’s point that dining managers may be influencing these trends, rather than simply responding to them — “nudging the shift,” as he puts it.

“As institutions of higher education, we have a responsibility to create more informed consumers of food,” he says. “This generation of students is more disconnected from our food production system than ever before, and the food system is more complex than ever before. If we want our students to be great citizens, we have to make them informed citizens.”

Cutler has a similar philosophy. He is proud to be a contributing member of Cornell’s famous food lab: a space to educate students and train staff. He is a proponent of Cornell’s “human ecology” programs, describing them as “an updated home economics that will teach students how to cook properly, how to prep properly and how to consume properly. Things that are going to allow someone to think differently about what’s on their plate.”

Looking Ahead

Dining managers can’t afford to be complacent. Having a young customer base that is constantly changing demands that they stay ahead of whatever is coming next. While the pandemic provided an opportunity to try out some new ideas, dining managers know that many of the most momentous developments are still in their early stages.

Cornell is about to unveil a new dining hall, and Cutler has high hopes for the facility that will have eleven different “restaurants,” each one with its own island, complete with seating arrangements and decor that are consistent with the theme. The goal is for students to truly feel like they are having a unique experience at each station. The facility will also produce all of its own pasta, drying it in house and cooking it right there in front of the students. Cutler’s hope is that the dining hall will double as a community space, something that seems quite possible given its size and location. “It’s a 58,000-square-foot facility in the middle of campus.”

Horst says that she is always looking for ways to integrate her students’ dining experience with their broader college experience. “Our dining facilities,” she says, “are an extension of their living quarters. We’re like living laboratories.”

But all of these directors agree that no matter what happens next, they will have to be innovative and flexible. “We will continue to be nimble,” Selesky says. “Food is going to continue to be important to students. Five years from now they’ll be even more knowledgeable, and I’m excited to make those changes and be on target for those trends.”

“We research, we experiment and we teach,” Ahmed says. “The best way to innovate is to experiment.”

Hormel: Strategic Partner To College Food Service

Hormel Foods is proud to work closely with innovative dining managers across the country. Greg Hetfield, national sales manager for colleges and universities for Hormel Foods says that the relationships he’s established are mutually beneficial.

“Working with colleges and universities helps us understand what the next generation of consumers is looking for,” he says. In return, the universities have access to Hormel’s powerful development resources and production capacity. “Our strategic partners — Ohio State, UCSB, Michigan State, to name a few — are active participants in an ongoing conversation. They have a lot of insight into the eating habits of the next generation, so their feedback helps us get new products right so they’re perfect by the time they reach all our customers.”

In addition to helping develop Hormel’s Fuse Burger, Hetfield worked with his college and university partners to refine the recipe for the successful Black Label Bacon line. Colleges were expressing a need for a premium-quality bacon that could be prepared quickly and with less manpower than other options. Hetfield went back and forth with a number of dining managers, collecting feedback, eventually developing a product that has since become “a gold standard” in the industry.

A collaboration with the University of Massachusetts is currently in the works. “We’re working on a raw chicken breast under the Applegate brand. It’s organic, so no antibiotics at all. Our hope is to release it to our food service customers, so it’s important that we have a partner like UMass who can feature the product for as many people as possible. We’ll use the school’s feedback to connect the dots in order to get the product ready for an even larger market.”

Hetfield also credits colleges as helping increase Hormel’s awareness of the need for sustainable practices and animal welfare.

It’s become part of the conversation, and at Hormel we certainly embrace that. We’re open about the ways we take care of our animals. We want people to know that we believe in clean ingredients and that the welfare of our employees is important to us.

Greg Hetfield, National Sales Manager for Colleges and Universities, Hormel Foods

Applegate is one of the many brands in the Hormel family that is based on values that line up with today’s college students. Applegate is pioneering regenerative agriculture, a sustainable land-management that includes biodiversity, soil health, carbon capture and animal wellbeing. The idea is not just to lower the impact of animal farming but improve the environment. Vice president of Mission and Regenerative Agriculture, Gina Asoudegan, describes it as “a holistic, systems approach to farming.”

“At Applegate, we want to change the meat we eat, and this launch propels that mission forward,” said Joe O’Connor, Applegate president. “We’re making a big bet on regenerative agriculture as one of the ways to show the world that raising animals and eating meat doesn’t have to be a problem. Animals can and do play a vital role in a healthy food system.”

Hormel Foods is doing their part to advocate for animal welfare. The meat in those blended burgers that have been such a hit on college campuses is sourced from one of hundreds of independent family farms. Third-party inspectors conduct nearly two thousand random audits in a year to ensure that the animals are being kept in safe environments that satisfy their physical and social needs, and that their diets are balanced and antibiotics are administered with discretion, if at all.

The close relationship Hormel Foods has with their college foodservice partners has spurred the company to embrace a greater variety in their products, especially in the area of vegetarian and plant-forward foods. “We understand that students and colleges have choices,” Hetfield says, “and that’s why you’re seeing more diversity in our portfolio, to cater to that. We’re listening to customers to hear exactly what they need.”

This story’s featured image is a dining hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara