Thinking back to your college days, and the campus dining services that accompanied them, you might conjure up an image of being herded like cattle through a cafeteria assembly line, where you would receive your mandatory plate of mystery meat.
Once the shudders subside, please continue reading.
The current generation of students at The University of Iowa finds its campus dining options far more diverse and flexible, matching the sophisticated tastes and expectations found in the UI student population and the community at large.
“Colleges’ food services have been changing over the past 10 to 15 years,” says Gregory Black, director of University Housing Residential Dining. “Today’s students have grown up in a ‘food court’ culture. Carryout dishes comprise more than half of family meals. Kids expect to be able to drop in when they want and eat what they want—and food services are a consumer-driven entity.”
The consumers, UI students, vocalize their health conscience by requesting more nutritional information. Other students push for more recycling efforts and other sustainability initiatives. Still others want to see fresh, local goods on the menu. The Residential Dining Services Committee, composed of students and dining staff, hears and responds to these issues, resulting in wide-ranging dining options and programs.
“There’s no shortage of variety,” says graduate student Natalie Chadwick, who has served on the committee for two years. “You won’t get bored.”
Market Place makeover
Residential Dining operates state-of-the-art dining facilities, known as Market Places, in a residence hall on each side of the Iowa River. Rather than dragging a tray through an endless setup of stainless steel, the Market Place offers multiple stations that provide a wide variety of foods. The Market Places offer continuous service from 6:45 a.m. to 8 p.m. on most weekdays, catering to the flexibility sought by busy college students.
The first Market Place was opened in Hillcrest Residence Hall in 1999. Along with expanded hours and food selection, this transition brought the food production crew to the front of the house, eliminating the mystique that can accompany mass food production.
“The students can see their food being prepared, they know it’s fresh. They really like that,” Black says. “After Hillcrest Market Place opened, one-third of the students from the east side of campus were trekking over to Hillcrest to eat—we were slammed.”
The success at Hillcrest led to the 2005 opening of an eastside Market Place in Burge Residence Hall. It also proved popular, which relieved the Hillcrest overcrowding.
A glance at a Market Place menu details the variety offered at the food stations: green curry shrimp and chicken teriyaki at the Asian food station; tamales and baja chicken breasts at Café Santa Fe; portobello sandwiches and vegetarian chili for those following a vegan diet; and lettuce wraps and noodle bowls from the fresh menu selections.
“Instead of grilled cheese sandwiches, we’ll offer panini,” Black says in reference to how standard offerings have evolved. “Instead of just burgers, we’ll have grilled portobello mushroom burgers. The salad bar contains tofu.”
But while food services are no stranger to trends, some things remain constant. “Our home-cooked station remains quite popular,” Black says. “Kids still like their meat and potatoes.”
Flood’s impact on IMU dining
The public dining services in the Iowa Memorial Union (IMU) saw significant change in the past two years, changes that were not spurred solely by nutritional needs or trends in taste.
The IMU was one of the numerous campus buildings affected by the flood of 2008; the facility was closed from mid-June until December, and the lower level remains closed. But efforts to keep the IMU services operational began as soon as the floodwater began to recede.
“We positioned ourselves around Iowa City,” says Rich Geer, director of IMU Campus Cafés. “We rented space in town, and we used the kitchen at Kinnick Stadium for our catering needs.”
After reoccupation of the IMU in December, Geer and his staff took the usable space in the IMU River Room on the first floor and created a new offering.
“The River Room became a mini food court—we had seven concepts running with rotating menus,” Geer says. “While IMU renovations take shape, we are working diligently on what the IMU dining experience will be once the lower level is functional.”
At present, the River Room offers plenty of choices: a full-service grill; Asian, Italian, and Mexican cuisine; a soup and salad bar; a deli; fruits and snacks; Cold Stone Creamery ice cream; and fresh-baked Papa Murphy’s pizza slices. The food can be carried out or enjoyed in seating overlooking the Iowa River.
The award-winning IMU chefs also host a showcase event once per month during the spring and fall academic sessions. Lunch with the Chefs offers meals with various themes—recent offerings have been named “Stockholm in Winter,” “Un Giorno in Italia,” and “Taste of Thai.” The meals are offered to UI students, faculty, and staff, as well as the general public.
Greens and greens
While the IMU dining plans take shape, Geer and others are shaping up UI sustainability efforts. When Geer arrived on campus in 2008, he immediately implemented use of biodegradable cups and plates, and improved the existing recycling systems.
He also worked with Abbie Gruwell, a student intern in the UI Office of Sustainability. “Her research established where our food products came from,” Geer says. “Foods that came from California are now purchased much closer to home. We redrew delivery routes to eliminate additional emissions.”
Geer also partnered with a student garden initiative. Student-grown produce is purchased by the IMU and featured in the menus. “We have a five-year goal: to be able to feed two-thirds of campus with produce grown in this garden,” Geer says.
Residential Dining has heard plenty of student input on the subject of “buy fresh, buy local.” Although the residence halls’ peak period doesn’t quite mesh with the food producers’ peak—the halls are much quieter in the summer—Black says they’re sending vendors a weekly forecast of their needs, so they can adjust their production to Residential Dining’s needs.
“I look at buying local as a win-win situation,” Black says. “We improve our carbon footprint by reducing refrigeration and trucking needs, and it helps the local economy.”
“In terms of sustainability,” Geer says, “the ball is rolling thanks to the tremendous effort on campus—we’re becoming quite the responsible world partner.”
by Christopher Clair