In the past, it was presumed that college students' food preferences focused on grilled cheese, Ramen noodles and pizza. But the cuisine available at universities and colleges today reflects a desire by students for greater variety and healthier, socially conscious options.

Jodi Smith, marketing manager at the National Association of College and University Food Services (East Lansing, Mich.), said a major trend on campuses is an increased customer interest in the history and origin of food.

“There is more of an emphasis on flavor layering and ethnic seasonings in food,” she said, “creating many more ethnically authentic and diverse choices.” According to the September 15, 2002, issue of Restaurants & Institutions, the bold and flavorful foods of the Mediterranean and Asia continue to dominate the market. Other popular flavors include those of South America, the Caribbean and Mexico.

A Healthier Focus

Today's students are not only savvier and have more eclectic palates than in years past, but they also are making better choices for their health, Smith said. “They (students) have a higher level of social consciousness in terms of what they are eating, what they are buying, and where it comes from.” The increase in made-to-order dishes, she added, goes hand in hand with healthier choices like vegetarianism.

A recent study done by the ARAMARK Corporation (Philadelphia), an international company specializing in foodservices, found that 24% of students indicated that vegan options on campuses were important to them. And according to a June 21 press release from Fairfield Farm Kitchens (Brockton, Mass.), a national provider of organic foods, there has been a “significant rise in both orders and interest from colleges and universities” for the company's vegetarian and vegan options and the organic beef and chicken options.

Smith also noted that the growth of made-to-order food on campuses allows students to meet their personal health needs, and create more menu versatility. “Among American consumers, dining itself has become less a necessity of survival and more of a form of entertainment,” she said. “This is even more evident in the college population.”

She also reiterated that even though dining trends are always changing, and there will always be “the next big thing,” the demand for healthy, nutritious food will continue to grow. Taste and nutritional value are not the only factors considered by students today, Smith said.

Likewise, the Fairfield press release described how students are working with their campus foodservice providers to make “it a priority to support companies and brands that operate in socially responsible and environmentally friendly ways.”

“On many campuses, student activists are encouraging dining service departments to do more local purchasing in addition to more specific requests, such as purchasing cage-free eggs,” Smith said. “Customers want to know where their food comes from and that all efforts to sustain the local economy and protect the environment are being taken.”