The top 2 campus dining halls—and what every school can learn from them

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The top 2 campus dining halls—and what every school can learn from them

Each year, the Princeton Review releases an annual survey asking students to rate schools in 62 categories, including best career services, best college newspaper, most beautiful campus—and best campus food.

And each year, two colleges—University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Bowdoin College—compete to win the best campus food category. As an amateur chef myself, I wanted to find out how these schools snatch the top spots year after year—and why having the best campus food matters.

For the fourth consecutive year, UMass Amherst took home the win for best campus food. “It speaks highly of our program and the passion of our staff in serving healthy, sustainable and delicious food, one meal at the time,” says Ken Toong, the executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass. “We’re serving more than just food, we strive to create memorable dining experiences and to enrich the quality of campus life.”

We’re serving more than just food, we strive to create memorable dining experiences and to enrich the quality of campus life.

Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at University of Massachusetts-Amherst

In a press release, UMass touts its abundance of healthy food options “created by award-winning chefs,” and describes mouthwatering meals, like the James Beard Foundation Award-winning mushroom blended chicken tikka slider and the sushi rolls handcrafted each day by student staff.

Bowdoin, which earned the No. 2 spot on this year’s Princeton Review ranking, also consistently earns high marks for its campus food. Bowdoin’s dining site describes its “diverse and changing menu,” comprised of “carefully sourced” ingredients. Similar to the meals at UMass Amherst, meals at Bowdoin support local, organic food vendors; meals are crafted from “local, grass-fed beef” and seasonal “vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are grown at the Bowdoin Organic Garden.”

But why does having the best food matter?

Not only does investing in auxiliary services—like campus dining—provide institutions with an additional source of revenue, but revamping overlooked campus facilities—like the dining hall—also supports student success and helps colleges compete for more prospective students.

Generate additional revenue

“The majority of non-athletic auxiliary units generate enough revenue to cover their own costs and debt service,” writes John Workman, a facilities and business affairs expert at EAB. “And many of these units return a portion of surplus revenue to central administration.”

For instance, UMass Dining employs student workers, a tactic that EAB research suggests decreases operating costs and increases revenue. And Bowdoin’s organic food options have revenue potential, as offering organic options “tap[s] into student philosophical interest and health-related willingness to pay extra.”

The majority of non-athletic auxiliary units generate enough revenue to cover their own costs and debt service… [and] return a portion of surplus revenue to central administration.

John Workman, facilities and business affairs expert at EAB

Support student success

Research has found that giving students more common areas can help support academic success and retention. In response, some campuses are creating community-centric residence halls, while others are revamping their dining program.

To address the multifaceted role of dining halls in student retention, recruitment, and campus life, Kutztown University (KU) overhauled their dining program. In recent years, KU had made several small changes to the dining program, but still faced “below-average” levels of student satisfaction, says Gerald Silberman, the former vice president of administration and finance at KU.

According to student feedback, the dining program felt inaccessible and inflexible. KU responded by renovating existing dining facilities, opening a 24-hour venue, and restructuring the dining program to include unlimited dining facility access.

The newly improved dining program cut food costs, decreased food waste, and increased student satisfaction, explains Silberman. The new facilities also offer students a place to socialize, he notes.

The University of Georgia (UGA) implemented similar changes after students pointed out that the dining program struggled to offer commuter students flexible dining options, says Robert Holden, associate vice president of auxiliary services. UGA invested in more modern retail dining options and extended dining hours to accommodate student schedules.

In the year following the dining hall revamp, UGA’s retail program revenue doubled, says Holden. Plus, the new dining options have created a more vibrant campus community that enhances student recruitment and retention, he explains.

Boost student satisfaction

Having the best food also matters because, well, students want good food. Students surveyed for Technomic’s 2017 College & University Consumer Trend Report indicated that they would be more likely to purchase a meal plan if their campus served better-tasting food (41%), higher quality food (40%), and healthier options (32%).

Case in point: UMass Amherst. UMass is home to the largest college dining services operation in the United States, and serves roughly 5.5 million meals each year. And since 1999, the number of students participating in the university’s meal plan has more than doubled, from 8,300 students to 19,200 students—thanks, in part, to the college’s high-quality food.

(Bowdoin Dining site, accessed 9/21/18; FSD Staff, Food Service Director, 7/15/17; Jackson, Business Officer, 10/2/17; Princeton Review ranking, accessed 8/21/19; UMass Amherst press release, 8/6/18)

Learn more about revamping campus facilities