Another school year is finally upon us, and with it comes the reality that for many, many schools across America, the dining options are nothing short of grim at best. For many students who are reliant on a meal plan, the less said about the meals eaten in campus dining halls the better. But some colleges and universities go above and beyond in their efforts to serve fresh, wholesome meals to the students who are living and studying there. From a college in Vermont that only sources its food from local vendors to one in Massachusetts that hosts a farmers' market that's entirely student-run, we tracked down the best colleges for food in America. (Image Credit: Carleton College)
Last summer, The Daily Meal conducted an eye-opening study, building on our previous ranking, that examined the most outstanding campus dining at nearly all of the approximately 2,000 four-year colleges across America. We discovered some schools that gave their students top-notch dining experiences, while others failed to pass even the most simple health inspections. However, in the end we found 52 clear winners that refused to accept the stigma that comes with collegiate dining, taking the ordinary campus meal and turning it into an extraordinary dining experience.
For this year's second annual study, we had a few goals in mind when revamping the list: to see if the schools that wowed us last year were still maintaining culinary perfection; to see the improvements some of the average dining programs have made to possibly rise in the ranks; and to see if any colleges that didn't make the cut last year have begun to see the importance their dining services have to students. We connected with passionate and candid dining services directors, managers, and chefs, and learned that more than ever, students on the whole are already passionate and knowledgeable about food when they arrive at campus, and are interested in trying new foods and want to know where it's coming from.
Here's the methodology we used to come up with the Best Colleges for Food in America for 2013:
• Healthy Food/Local and Sustainable: The meals are made in-house from scratch as well as cooked in small batches, and the school is committed to teaching their students the benefits of buying locally and maintaining healthy lifestyles.
• Accessibility and Service: The number of eateries on campus along with the daily hours, and how well these locations are taken care of.
• Events/Nutritional Education: Events are centered on food, and the dining halls help bring students together in an engaging way. Additionally, if they educated their students about nutrition through these events or on their website, it was a bonus.
• The 'X Factor': Something unique and creative that differentiated the school's dining services from the rest of the pack.
• Student Feedback/ Social Media: While we still valued many of the things we noted from last year -- for example, whether students are interested in trying new cuisines and spices as well as very invested in sustainable and local dining -- there are still many schools that seemed to fall short when we evaluated their dining performances. Therefore, we made student feedback and social media outlets the last category in our assessment this year. It seemed appropriate this time around to incorporate how well-received student requests or complaints are by the dining services, as well as the frequency that these pages are updated to inform their students about new additions or changes.
While we did evaluate the schools for how great the actual food is, the most important aspect to us was the overall dining experience, everything from restaurant-quality food to "going green." As a result, several of the schools that were seen as the leaders on last year's list have been joined by institutions have improved their dining services. While the hierarchy might be changed, all the schools on our list still go above and beyond the call of duty. And while there is 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, Occidental College engages their students in yearly events like "Oxy Iron Chef" and holiday theme nights; Bowdoin's dining hall blog and their dining hall food magazine, The Bowdoin Gourmet, are designed to constantly keep students in the loop. Emory University offers their students cooking classes on topics like the best wine and meal pairings and mixology 101, while Kennesaw State harvests their own honey, mushrooms, and herbs from campus gardens. Washington University in St. Louis allows students to customize and order campus food online, and Cornell has had guests like The New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman come to campus and speak about conscious eating.
It seems somewhat difficult to grasp how truly amazing some dining programs are, but with this list, we've tried to highlight how impressive and tasty life can be at one of these schools. If food is your priority, make sure you keep those transfer forms handy after reading our picks for the Best Colleges for Food in America.
-Dana Kaufman, The Daily Meal