Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the fall 2012 semester.
By now, undergrads across America have moved into dorms, tossed the semester's first Frisbees on the quad, and played awkward ice-breakers on the first day of English 101. While making new friends, settling in, and paying attention in class are important pursuits, locating — and experiencing — the dining hall should be a top priority. And discovering which schools have the best ones has been ours.
Read More: 52 Best Colleges for Food in America
This year, The Daily Meal went big, setting out to determine the best in campus dining across the nation — from small liberal arts colleges to Big Ten mega-universities. In an epic study that spanned the entire summer, we examined the dining programs at every four-year college in America — more than 2,000 of them. What we found was both frightening and impressive.
From blind taste tests to ensure the highest-quality products and locally sourced tofu to a schedule of rotating pan-Asian cuisine, when it comes to food at least, colleges are providing students with plenty to write home about. Many are even giving local restaurants a run for their money.
After connecting with surprisingly candid — and incredibly passionate — dining services directors, managers, and chefs, we learned that the evolution in college dining has birthed a few trends. Our version of CliffsNotes below:
• Today’s undergrad is already educated about food when he or she arrives on campus
• He or she is generally interested in experiencing new spices, flavors, and cuisines — and wants the university to help this pursuit
• It’s all about local, organic, and sustainable. Students want to know where their food is coming from, and more and more universities are happy to tell them
Our methodology? To come up with our list of the 52 Best Colleges for Food in America, we looked to several sources — college dining services awards, respected college lists like the Princeton Review, news stories, and our own interviews. Our focus was not only on the actual food, but schools’ dining programs as a whole.
To narrow things down, we looked at a variety of factors. A few major trends prevented a large number of schools from even being considered for our list. Many schools failed to provide students with the most basic of options:
• Unsanitary Conditions or Health Code Violations: Students have found everything from thumbtacks to grasshoppers in their campus food. Completely unacceptable
• Lack of Variety: Certain menus listed the same meals each and every day, and many simply weren’t healthy. Far less offensive, but still not OK
• Missing Service: The dining services teams at some schools appear to be far less accessible, and fail to create a community for students through food education and/or events.
To rank the schools that did make the cut, we graded them on a variety of criteria. Each could earn up to five points in each of the categories below.
• Healthy Food: Meals that are fresh, made from scratch, and cooked in small batches
• Events: Themed dinners, picnics, cooking classes — anything to engage undergrads
• Local: Programs that support the community with local purchases
• Sustainable: Incorporating eco-friendly practices into the dining program
• Accessibility and Service: How easy it is for students to connect with dining services, and how well they are taken care of
• The X Factor: Something that made our jaws drop
Where the occasional tiebreaker was required, the actual food — how good it is, how creative it is, how good the schools’ students think it tastes — was the deciding factor.
While there’s a clear hierarchy, we’d be happy to eat at any of the colleges on this list. The truth is that life can be pretty delicious if you’re an undergrad. For example, campuses in Missouri, Maine, and Massachusetts are home to some stunning college food. And the Hokies, the Dukes, and the Big Red have it especially good.
Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., boasts tandoori ovens tended to by trained chefs from Pakistan and India; a Brunswick, Maine, college has an on-site bakery and meat shop; and Amherst, Mass., is the site of a food truck that sells burgers and tacos, seven days a week.
Hokies at Virginia Tech have the best of both worlds — multiple on-site gardens for the freshest of produce, and grills scattered around campus so students can BBQ on a whim. The dining services team at James Madison University, home of the Dukes, practically begs students for feedback, so they can make the program even better. At Cornell, undergrads can pick from more than 30 eateries, and have a team of trained chefs serving up meals that sound like Michelin-rated restaurant fare.
Our goal with this list is to highlight the most impressive, interesting, and plain-old fun elements of the dining programs we selected — so print out your class schedule, kiss summer vacation goodbye, and check out The 52 Best Colleges for Food in America.
We want to hear from you! Leave us a message about the tasty, nasty, and downright bad on your campus.