After freshman year of college, university dining halls become a mere memory that is, for many people, happily no longer a reality. Yet at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the effort that goes in to feeding thousands of students each day deserves more recognition than that.
The university is equipped with five dining centers inside various residence halls on campus. Students may use prepaid meal plans to eat a maximum of 19 meals each week; three meals per day on weekdays and just brunch and dinner on weekends. Also scattered throughout campus are Grab-n-Gos, small convenience stores that also accept pre-paid cash or meal “swipes.”
“The Grab-n-Gos are great,” says CU-Boulder freshman Cameron Fitzpatrick. “They’re an easy way to get food between classes, or if you don’t have enough time to sit down and eat.” Fitzpatrick adds that the Grab-n-Gos are open late, which often makes them a convenient alternative to a dining hall meal, since most of the dining centers only serve dinner from 5 to 7 p.m.
While students may consider dining centers simply as hubs of nourishment, behind the scenes exists a beehive of activity. Kerry Paterson, executive chef for all food service within the residential dining system, says that one of the biggest obstacles the dining halls face is sourcing local food.
“The growing season is limited, and the primary growing season is during the summer when we only have limited service,” Paterson says, adding that the past six years or so have seen a surge in efforts to bring in local food. Currently, the meals served on campus are sourced with about 8 percent to 10 percent locally grown produce. Most of the grocery and frozen products are imported through the Denver branch of Sysco, and the dairy comes from Robinson’s Dairy, also in Denver.
While the push to “go local” is omnipresent in Boulder and at CU, the biggest hurdle toward getting there is cost. Paterson says that it is often more expensive to buy foods from local producers.
“It’s a balance between the quality of the product and the price,” he says. “I can go find a cheaper burrito from a mass-produced place, but I’m sacrificing quality.” University purchasing guidelines further the challenges of buying locally. According to Paterson, the guidelines are very “written down,” and require that purchasing be competitive.
“There needs to be an open bid,” he says. “So why should I buy your product that may be at a higher price when a mass-producer comes in and says, ‘I can get you the same product at this price,’ though it comes from 2,000 miles away?” Such guidelines differentiate Paterson’s job from that of a restaurant chef, since he doesn’t have the freedom to go with a product simply because he likes the company or even the product itself.
“We follow the guidelines of the university, which are written around state money,” he says. Etan Brandt- Finell, a cooking assistant at the Sewall Hall dining center, acknowledges that since the university depends on state money to operate, purchasing systems mandate certain foods over others.
“There is a conscious effort toward quality, but that being said, it’s statefunded,” Brandt-Finell says. “We don’t have very good organic local produce; we have bulk produce coming in.” But he adds that he sees heavy quality control throughout the dining halls despite lackluster ingredients.
“[The system] encourages putting out decent food with what we have,” he says.
Various student groups and classes on campus have set to work trying to influence local sourcing throughout the dining hall system.
“We work a lot with student groups,” Paterson says. “Our organic and natural Grab-n-Go location, Piazanos, was the result of a student group.” Student activism also led to sourcing beef that doesn’t include hormones or antibiotics, as was the development of more sustainable packaging.
One environmental class on campus influenced the elimination of plastic bags from convenience stores and Grab-n-Gos, as well as reduced use of plastic bottles on campus.
“The balance is, of course, [whether we can] afford those increases without increasing room and board and things like that too much,” Paterson says.
While outside influences do largely dictate what is served in dining halls, students’ taste buds are the ultimate test.
“It’s not the best,” Fitzpatrick says of the food. Fitzpatrick dines regularly in various dining centers on campus; he also works two nights a week at the Farrand Hall dining center. “It tastes bland, and there is no real flavor.”
Fitzpatrick is not alone in his opinion. Much of the feedback surrounding university dining halls is likewise uncomplimentary.
“I think some of [the students] flat out don’t like whatever we do,” Paterson says. “I can’t please everyone.”
Cooking 13,000 meals each day is no straightforward task, especially when targeted toward finicky college students. In an effort to adapt to student tastes, dining hall chefs implement blind taste tests of new products. Recent tests, according to Paterson, have determined which brand of chicken breast or veggie burger to serve. Paterson also acknowledges the frustration students must experience living in the dorms for an entire academic year.
“I know it gets tough,” he says. “But we try to make things exciting.”
It doesn’t get much more exciting than a brand-new dining center, which is what students can look forward to come next fall. The building, which will encompass student support services such as the Center for Multicultural Affairs, the GLBT Resource Center and Disability Services, will feature a 900-seat dining center with 10 “microrestaurants,” similar to what you would find in a food court.
“The main dining room will have 10 themes of food, like Asian, Latino, Italian, sushi and a black coat chef ’s area, where we’ll do daily specials,” Paterson says.
He hopes that the new center will offer students a wider array of choices that will allow them to find something that pleases their palate every time. This is one of the ways the dining center system aims for quality.
“We continue to strive and make more and more sustainable decisions in the way we operate,” Paterson says. “Every year we look to see what we can do, within the operating parameters, to improve.”