Mealtime Makeover

Today’s campus dining comes with a focus on fresh and healthy

Looking back on their college days, many folks cringe at the food they thoughtlessly consumed. Like much of the fashion that came from the 70s and 80s, that food often contained unnatural colors and was not easily identifiable.

At Sac State, the days of the lunch lady in a hairnet dumping gelatinous, off-colored gravy onto a pile of mystery meat are long gone. Even the iconic, plastic cafeteria trays have disappeared, replaced by smaller plates that are often filled with a fresh, seasonal salad or a vegetable and chicken stir-fry with brown rice.

Steven Davis, director of dining services for University Enterprises Inc., the non-profit auxiliary organization responsible for campus dining services, is tasked with pleasing the taste buds of Sac State students.

When it comes to feeding college students, flavor is important, but there is a growing desire for fresh, nutritious choices.

Delivering those healthy options and doing what’s right for the environment, all while pleasing palates across campus—for students as well as faculty and staff—is a welcome challenge.

“Dining operations have evolved a lot in the last 20 years and I think a big part of it is, we have more savvy customers,” Davis says. “We definitely want to keep our fingers on the pulse of what students are saying and there seems to be more focus on healthy food. Fresh ingredients are important. There is an emphasis on nutrition—more people are reading labels now.”

Diet demands shape menus

In his 2009 book Eating Animals author Jonathan Foer estimates that 18 percent of college students are vegetarian. Campus eateries are responding as more students search for alternatives to burgers, pizza and meat-filled sandwiches.

“There is definitely a trend toward students with a keen eye for healthy, local and fresh,” says Angela Rader, director of marketing services for University Enterprises.

One solution: RF Greens, which opened this fall at the American River Courtyard. The campus’ newest eatery is designed to cater to a number of dietary requests.

“It is a vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free paradise,” Davis says. “There are fresh salads made to your liking and it will carry more than 20 fresh ingredients that are vegetarian and gluten free, along with an assortment of vegetarian and gluten-free snacks and desserts.”

In the University Union, Good Eats offers a design-your-own salad station with vegan and gluten-free options, and tofu can be substituted for any meat option. Epicure Restaurant at Sacramento State, the campus’ more upscale restaurant, offers lettuce wraps as alternatives to buns for sandwiches. Gluten-free fusilli is always available and weekly specials include vegetarian and wheat-free meals.

While healthy options are being sought out, college students are still able to indulge. Round Table Pizza, Burger King and Panda Express are mainstays.

“We are focused on giving a wide range of options and choices for the campus,” Rader says.

Comfort food in comfortable spaces

Food can comfort, strengthen and even heal, but even going back to the time of ancient Greece, where you eat is as important as what you eat. As one of Aesop’s fables goes: “A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.”

A recent remodel of Sac State’s Dining Commons, originally built in the 1960s, replaced utilitarian cafeteria furniture with comfortable booths, tables and chairs along with several flat-screen TVs and even a recessed movie screen in the ceiling.

“We have definitely increased the ambiance,” Rader says. “We’ve done some nice upgrades so there is a warm, inviting aspect to it. We look for that with all of our retail operations.”

Any good chef will tell you presentation is a vital component of the dining experience. Playing on the popularity of restaurant exhibition kitchens, upon entering the dining hall dinner-goers at Dining Commons experience the “Exhibition Station,” where chefs slice, dice and cook up fresh plates for the guests.

“I call it ‘eatertainment,’” Davis says. “People like to have fresh food and they like to see it prepared in front of them, to have that interaction with the chef.”

Students seeking comfort food can find plenty of it and again, it reflects current trends, this time for ethnic food. Sushi, pho, Chinese and Indian and halal eateries can all be found at Sac State. Davis says theme months at Dining Commons will include international dishes and he expects requests for diversity to increase along the lines of the student population.

Efficient eateries

Students can feel good about eating on campus, knowing the providers are striving toward sustainability.

Eliminating cafeteria trays reduced the amount of wasted food by close to 30 percent. Organic options abound and Sac State’s food services participates in Meatless Mondays, a national campaign designed to “improve personal health and the health of the planet.”

And as the farm-to-fork movement gains momentum, the campus is also aiming to serve seasonal, local food. Davis says his chefs try to buy from regional farms and food suppliers whenever feasible. Considerable effort is made to reduce waste and energy.

“We have the luxury of living in a part of the world where there is a plethora of choices for fresh food,” Davis says. “That’s a major benefit. It’s reducing our carbon footprint.”

There is a learning element as well. Davis hopes students will leave campus with an enriched view of eating rather than memories of bland cafeteria food.

“It’s not just about putting food on the table, it’s about educating students as to what is nutrition and flavor,” Davis says. “We feel it’s part of our responsibility to educate students and help them navigate these lifestyle choices.”

 By the Numbers

272,000 – Meals served by Sac State’s Dining Commons last year.

1,260 - Heads of lettuce purchased by dining services each month.

60 - Pounds of mixed vegetables served at the Dining Commons on an average day. 

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