AMHERST — David Placzek selects raw vegetables from a food counter and drops them into a bowl. In go pieces of onion, rounds of squash, broccoli florets, and slices of colorful bell peppers. He hands it to a chef at a wok, and asks for chicken with spices. In minutes, Placzek’s steaming stir-fried lunch is ready to eat.
The 21-year-old University of Massachusetts-Amherst senior has just visited one of 12 food stations in the newly renovated Hampshire Dining Commons. He might have also sampled made-to-order sushi, rotisserie chicken, gluten-free enchiladas, blackened tilapia, vegetable spaghetti casserole, and more. “I love how many options the dining commons always have out,” Placzek e-mails later.
Last month UMass-Amherst was ranked No. 3 in The Princeton Review’s top 20 for the Best Campus Food list. Findings are based on a recent survey of 126,000 students at 378 colleges. (In 2003, UMass-Amherst food was so bad it made the top 20 list for “Is it Food?”) What distinguishes the dining options now, according to nutritionists and food service representatives, is its commitment to healthy and sustainable food. The campus has four main dining commons, but it is Hampshire, which opened Aug. 6 after nine months and a $15.5 million renovation, that the university hopes will be a model for others around the country.
“This is next-generation campus dining,” says Ken K. Toong, executive director of the campus’ auxiliary enterprises. “The whole thing is designed like a spaceship, everything is all circles, every concept is easy for customers and traffic flow.” The focus, he says, “is for the campus to eat healthier.”
The 46,000-square-foot airy space, the primary dining hall for 5,000 students in adjacent dorms, can accommodate 650 students at once. Wooden and metal tables are a mix of communal tables, both high- and low-tops, that can be adjusted for two to a dozen.
Food is similar to what you’d find at natural foods stores: free-range eggs, homemade breads, sustainable fish, some produce from nearby farms, some from five “permaculture” gardens funded by Toong’s office (these earned recognition by the White House in 2012). At Hampshire, no sodas are offered, just infused waters, fresh juices, Fair Trade coffee, and tea. Student surveys drive most of the choices, with 25 student-dining ambassadors assisting change. The campus employs 13 chefs.
“I have immense respect for Ken,” says Patricia Klos, director of dining and business services for Tufts University, No. 14 on the Best Campus Food list and the only other Massachusetts college that made the cut. Bowdoin College in Maine retained its No. 1 ranking for the sixth year in a row. “In the old days of college, it was eat or go hungry,” she says. “Today, students not only have traveled the world, they’ve tasted it.”
Campus food is a big business. It includes “grab and go” outlets, cafes, and campus food trucks (UMass-Amherst has two). Food and nonalcoholic beverages purchased by colleges and universities in the US totaled $6.6 billion last year, generating revenues of $15.3 billion, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based food service industry research firm. The campus food industry has been growing at 4 percent annually for the past five years, says Joseph Pawlak of Technomic.
Meal plan costs vary. For full meal plans, UMass-Amherst charges $2,660 per semester; Tufts, $2,715 per semester; Bowdoin, $3,299. At UMass-Amherst, nearly 83 percent of the 20,500 students are enrolled in a meal plan. Toong says food services generate revenues of $78 million, making it the second-largest university dining program in the country.
The university is able to provide kosher, vegan, gluten-free, Asian, and Latin choices because costs are cut elsewhere, says Garett DiStefano, director of residential dining. One cut is no more trays, reducing food waste by 30 percent. Other reductions come from offering smaller portions and cooking food within 50 minutes of service.
There are those who find the new style at Hampshire a bit much. Daniel Villamizar, 23, a former student who lives in Amherst and was eating there last week, says service was akin to leisurely restaurant dining rather than a quick meal suited to a student’s lifestyle.
Yet it is that restaurant quality that comforts Kathleen Podesky of Wareham. She and her husband are graduates of UMass-Amherst, their son Connor DeCosta is a junior. She describes her son as “physically fit” and needing protein. “It was important with us that we know he likes the food at college,” she says.
Though Toong is hopeful UMass-Amherst can move up to No. 1 in campus food ratings, he’s less interested in competing with other schools than in increasing food literacy and healthy habits among students. “The choices they make in the food they eat will help reduce obesity, disease, and associated rising health care costs,” he says.
Most students at college miss home cooking. At UMass-Amherst, they may graduate and miss the college food.