University of Richmond’s Heilman Dining Center Photo courtesy University of Richmond
Mystery meat, overcooked cabbage filling the dining hall with its sulfurous smell, inedible scrambled eggs and sausage patties sitting in a pool of grease — these are things of the past. Today's college students are treated to sushi, pizza baked in a brick oven, and global cuisine from Italy to India and beyond.
As schools compete to attract students, the stakes have become higher. "All across higher education, quite frankly," says Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski, "students and their parents expect more."
Coming in at No. 4 in the best food category in the Princeton Review's ranking of U.S. colleges, Virginia Tech has proven that it has the chops to impress. "[It's] our commitment to excellence," says Ted Faulkner, director of dining services. "We try to stay authentic and true. … We don't take shortcuts; we make it all from scratch."
And they grow most of it on school grounds. Their 2.2-acre garden, overseen by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, yielded more than 40,000 pounds of produce last year. They also purchase pork and beef raised on site by the Animal and Poultry Sciences department, as well as milk from the Dairy Science department.
More than 11,000 students living off campus choose to remain on the meal plan. That means along with the 9,000-plus students who live on campus, participation in the meal plan is more than 100 percent at Tech.
The University of Richmond also consistently wins awards for its food. This year, UR won the National Association of College & University Food Services' Loyal E. Horton Dining Award in silver for catering and retail sales, as well as two honorable mentions for dining concepts, among others. (Virginia Tech also won two Loyal E. Horton Dining Awards.) "There isn't a ‘cafeteria' to be found on the campus," says Cynthia Stearns, UR's assistant director in charge of marketing. Students can choose lettuce wraps, bánh mi, carved rotisserie chicken, cooked-to-order pasta, Mongolian grill items and (for those who want it) cereal all day long. "We have our own brands. …Our goal is to serve a certain quality, and we can't have that if we depend on a national brand," she says.
"[Students] have grown up in a culture … where it's not unusual to go out to eat — a lot," Stearns says. "Kids are used to eating differently, and plus, they're used to having access to a lot of choices."
Nor are the allergy-afflicted forgotten. Both schools offer gluten-free and nut-free options. Vegetarians and vegans aren't left out either.
As tuition and fees soar, parents and students expect a return on their investment. However, the amenities themselves raise costs as schools are forced to regard students as customers. "It's a balancing act," Owczarski says. "If you improve the quality [of life], you're going to have … more people wanting to live in your residence halls." And that might just be the tipping point between choosing one school over another.