With the opening of the 2012-13 academic year, college food service operators face the twin, and conflicting, challenges of rising expectations and rising costs, says Tom Mac Dermott, president of Clarion Group, a college food and hospitality consulting firm.
“Students today have become more sophisticated and knowledgeable about food and are not content with just pizza and burgers,” Mac Dermott said. “In addition, the large and increasing numbers, of students from other parts of the world are looking for foods they are familiar with from home. College food services have to adapt to this new reality.”
“Students also are more conscious of the environment and expect their college food service to be proactive in conservation, recycling and reusing,” he said, “including reducing energy consumption and composing waste.”
As evidence of their interest in sustainability, students have willingly accepted the elimination of trays in their college dining halls. Without a tray, a student can take only the food he or she can carry in two hands. The result has been a substantial reduction in waste, as much as 40% to 50% less in some college food services, Mac Dermott says college food service manager have reported.
The college food service benefits by seeing its food cost decline, even as prices are rising.
The trend has had an additional benefit: “By taking less food and being selective about the foods they choose, students are eating healthier and not putting on the dreaded ‘Freshman 15′ – the extra pounds that new students traditionally add as they first encounter the open food displays in the college food service,” according to Mac Dermott.
College food service operators have encouraged the trend by providing healthier choices alongside (and sometimes in place of) the traditional fast foods and comfort foods. Many college food services also have a dietitian on staff to guide menu planning and counsel with students who have health or weight concerns.
With students taking less food per meal, the college food service operator can see food costs per meal declining. This opens the opportunity to introduce fresh, local and organic foods to the menu, although these are often more expensive than conventional foods.
Many college food services also utilize fresh produce grown right on campus by student and student-faculty groups. This brings a personalization and greater sense of community to the college food service, Mac Dermott says. Students and faculty see the meals in the college food center in the same light as fruits, vegetables and herbs from a backyard garden at home.
Preparing foods that students from Latin American, Asian and other countries will recognize and enjoy is a special challenge to the American college food service manager and chef. One way to overcome the challenge, Mac Dermott says, is to hire cooks from those regions who know how to prepare these specialty dishes authentically.
Another means is to invite ethnic restaurants in the area to present a “guest restaurant day” in the college dining hall every few weeks. The restaurant gains exposure to a new group of customers; students are treated to new, different cuisines, and the food service operator gains good will at little or no cost, he says.
By converting to more efficient Energy Star equipment, the college food service operator reduces energy consumption and cost, as well as helping to reduce the impact of climate change, Mac Dermott noted. By composting waste food for use in enriching soil in the campus farm and landscaping, the college food service also is reducing its trash removal expenses. Eliminating plastic, disposable water and beverage bottles and reducing the use of disposable dishes, the college food service also is helping the operation’s bottom line as well as doing well for the Earth.
About Clarion Group
Clarion Group is an consulting firm that advises companies, professional firms, colleges and universities, independent schools and institutions in the management, operation and improvement of their in-house employee/student food services, catering, conference, lodging and related hospitality services throughout the U.S. and Canada.