Campus dining changes to meet the needs of Gen Z

Dry, chewy burgers, the wall of Plexiglass cereal dispensers, maybe some powdered eggs?

For many generations, fine dining has not been part of the college experience. Campus dining was usually a buffet-style line with limited options of institutionalized food.

But as Gen Z moves in, campus dining is in the middle of a revolution. Dining halls and residence halls play an increasing role in why a student chooses a college, so higher education has had to adapt to attract students used to restaurant-quality food. Unlike in the past, campus dining is now competing with every restaurant in town with a DoorDash or Uber Eats partnership.

Rethinking the space
As colleges reimagine on-campus dining, they’re not just looking at the food; they’re rethinking the space itself. Students are looking for a multi-functional space that allows them to eat, study and hang out with their friends (especially as technology has evolved).

A 2018 study by Cigna found that despite being the generation most connected by technology, Gen Z is also the loneliest. Creating spaces that foster connectedness and encourage interaction is important to combat feelings of loneliness, and campus dining facilities are the perfect place for that. Some schools are moving from a traditional dining hall format to on-campus restaurants and coffee shops to give students more options.

Reimagining the food
Tastes are changing, too. Nearly half of today’s college students identify themselves as “foodies,” which means they expect more out of their dining options. Sharon Olson, Executive Director of market research firm Y-Pulse, told Xtalks:

We found young consumers are using a sophisticated set of criteria involving health, nutrition, ethical concerns, and culinary adventure when making dining out decisions. These trends are most likely to have a great impact on college campus dining in the coming years, if not months.

Y-Pulse research shows young people are looking for healthy options, expecting ethical and sustainable practices, and seeking customizable eating experiences and international flavors, as well as opting for fast and healthy food options.

Campus dining is now offering flexible options like a healthy grab-and-go lunch for students who don’t have time to eat at the dining hall. And dining hall operators are creating themed stations instead of the old single buffet line.

Dealing with dietary needs
Today, about 32 million Americans have a food allergy, and college food services have become more adept at dealing with dietary restrictions. Some schools serve allergen-free meals at certain dining halls while others create allergen-free stations within every dining option. For those in need of a special diet, knowing their dietary needs can be met on campus matters.

“Being able to eat safely is a big factor in people picking the university they pick,” Gina Keilen, staff dietitian for Michigan State University, told Foodservice Director.

Feeding athletes
One big challenge for colleges is how to best feed their athletes, who often require more food and healthier options than the general student population. Until 2014, colleges in the NCAA were limited to providing three meals a day for athletes, but a rule change now allows schools to provide unlimited meals and snacks for student-athletes.

Several large NCAA Division I schools have even opened dining halls specifically for athletes, such as the new Cash Family Sports Nutrition Center at Texas Tech University. The state-of-the-art facility serves more than 400 student-athletes and includes on-site meal prep, a touch-screen order system and room for 220 students at once. In fact, many of the larger schools are offering this kind of customization, including chef-prepared meals tailored to each athlete.

It’s a different story at smaller schools. Limited dining hall hours and fewer healthy options can make feeding athletes a challenge. Emma Fairchild, a soccer player at Evangel University, an NAIA school in Springfield, Missouri, says:

At a small school there are limited dining hours, so when my practice overlaps with my dining hours it’s harder to find something to eat. There’s not a lot of healthy options you can eat before practice. There are some, but it gets very repetitive very fast.

And despite the lifting of NCAA rules against unlimited food options, not even every D-I school can afford to provide unlimited dining to its athletes. Schools like Portland State University are aware of the struggles student-athletes can face when the university isn’t providing food. Portland State President Violet Gibson told the PSU Vanguard:

People in athletics … we’re expecting them to use their bodies in very intense ways, and they’re still not getting the adequate food that they need to be able to do their job and fulfill their duties as a student athlete here on campus.

Food pantries and other on-campus programs can help alleviate some of the stress of food insecurity for student-athletes, but many aren’t aware of the programs or don’t think they’re eligible. Another way to address the issue is to make it a specific fundraising goal. Valerie Cleary, director of athletics at Portland State, says:

We’ve actually made nutrition as one of our key elements that we’re fundraising for, so when we meet with donors and they’re talking about ways they could help with athletics … nutrition is a component.

Dining well
Change has come to campus dining, and colleges and universities are making changes as Gen Z enters their hallowed halls.

Dining well has become a priority, making those dried out burgers just a nostalgic memory for the rest of us.

Matt Keys, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is a client leader, and Mike Murphy is a business development leader in higher education at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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