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Eat Your Heart Out

A salad with lettuce, chicken and yellow and red peppers on a white salad plate
Students today have more dining choices than ever. But they also want health and sustainability on the menu.

By Ed Brennen

The white salad bowl hangs frozen in midair, orbited by bits of iceberg lettuce, a fork and a stray slice of bread. Elsewhere in the photo, two plastic cups go tumbling, their contents spewing like paint toward a Jackson Pollock canvas. 

The image, under the headline “Residents Revolt Over Meal Plan,” dominates the cover of the Nov. 2, 1970 issue of The Text, the student newspaper of the Lowell Technological Institute. The front-page editorial below the photo declares that student residents were fed up with the limited choices of the school’s mandatory meal plan, so they staged a demonstration in the Smith Hall cafeteria to get the administration’s attention.

“Their tempers overcame their good senses and the beef stew started flying.”

What would the grinning student in the photo, the one with the muttonchop sideburns, think of the university’s dining options today? Meal plans are still mandatory for students living in residence halls, but most would agree that the choices—not to mention the quality of the food and the dining facilities themselves—have never been better.

Executive Sous Chef Mike Petit gives students in the Food and Nutrition Management course a tour of the South Campus Dining Commons
Executive Sous Chef Mike Petit gives students in the Food and Nutrition Management course a tour of the South Campus Dining Commons.
“We are always thinking about the health of our students as well as their educational experience, and there’s nothing more important to students’ health than the diet that they maintain,” says Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who leads not only a major public research institution, but also one of the busiest eateries in the state. University Dining is projected to serve a record 2 million meals in 2018 (about 50,000 each week), up from 1.7 million in 2015. Most of those meals are served to the university’s 5,000 residential students, but plenty of commuter students, faculty and staff also take advantage of the value and convenience of campus dining.

Today’s students are greeted with a daily smorgasboard of all-you-care-to-eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the three main “Dining Commons”—Fox Hall on East Campus, the McGauvran Center on South and the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center downtown. Hungry students can fill their plates with traditional favorites like pizza, pasta and burgers or go for something healthier like a vegan spinach salad or Moroccan vegetable stew. Students can also nosh at a dozen retail locations across campus. Using their meal plan’s “River Hawk Dollars” (or cash), they can grab breakfast at Einstein Bros. Bagels, lunch at Subway or Sal’s Pizza and an afternoon latte at Starbucks.

“Forget 30 years ago. I would say not even students from 15 years ago would recognize the dining experience here today,” says Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and University Events Larry Siegel, who joined the university in 1986. He remembers when the only retail dining option on campus—something of particular importance to commuter students not on a meal plan—was a Pizza Hut kiosk tucked in a basement corner of Southwick Hall.

“Food brings people together, and it can really enhance the student experience,” says Siegel, who sees two important milestones in the evolution of the campus dining scene. The first was when the university hired national food service provider Aramark to manage its dining program in 1989. “They were a big corporation with large-scale purchasing power, so the price of the meal plan went down and the offerings went up,” he says.

“Forget 30 years ago. I would say not even students from 15 years ago would recognize the dining experience here today.”
The second milestone was when Marty Meehan became chancellor, and Moloney executive vice chancellor, in 2007. “We knew we had to step up our game,” Siegel says. Across the country, campus dining halls were no longer being seen as drab cafeterias where students had to go for no-frills sustenance. Instead, they were being viewed as admissions recruiting tools for prospective students. As such, they were redesigned to feel more like stylish, modern restaurants, complete with comfortable booths, flat-screen TVs, flickering fireplaces and designer lighting.

“It starts with the environment. In some cases, the same food just tastes better in a nice place,” says Siegel, who notes that Aramark has invested more than $18 million into the university’s dining facilities over the past decade, with another $8.5 million planned in the next few years.

This spring, the university is opening another East Campus dining facility at University Suites (a $1 million renovation and expansion of the Hawk’s Nest Cafe) to help feed the 800 students living in the new River Hawk Village. On North Campus, meanwhile, the Cumnock Hall auditorium is being transformed into the Cumnock Marketplace, a $5 million project that will provide students with another retail dining option (and hangout/study space) when it opens this fall.

Is Your Plate Insta-worthy?

Moloney has a unique perspective on the University Dining program. As a University of Lowell undergrad in the mid-’70s, she worked part-time in the now-demolished South Campus dining facility. Living in an off-campus apartment at the time, Moloney appreciated the employee discount she received for flipping burgers behind the grill. “It was great. We could grab a grilled cheese sandwich or hamburger, or maybe some American chop suey,” Moloney recalls before pausing to reflect on those dietary choices. “Students today are much more health-conscious, certainly more than we were back then.”

Indeed, the eating habits and dietary restrictions of today’s students have been major drivers in the evolution of the campus dining halls.

“The consumer is so much more informed now,” says Rachel DiGregorio, marketing manager for University Dining. She says students absorb the healthy eating messages they see on Food Network—and by following celebrities and athletes on social media who espouse vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. “We like to say, ‘Is your plate Instagram-worthy?’” says DiGregorio, whose team is active on social media promoting special meals and events like free cooking classes for students.

To help students make smart dining choices, Aramark posts color-coded icons at food stations to denote whether something is low-fat, low-calorie or whole grain as part of its “Healthy for Life” program. Executive Chef Frank Hurley and Executive Sous Chef Mike Petit also use the program as a guideline to reduce unhealthy things like trans fats and sodium when creating their menus.

The Smith Hall dining hall in the '50's
The Smith Hall dining hall in the '50's.
The university’s move to Division I athletics has also influenced what’s served in the dining halls. University Dining provides nutritious meals and snacks to help student-athletes fuel up for practices and games and to recover afterward. “There are a lot of clean proteins like chicken and pork, along with veggies and vinegar dressings on the salad bar,” says Bruce Perry, district manager for University Dining. Many of those items, like nonfat Greek yogurt, almond milk, granola, barley and quinoa, have been integrated into the everyday dining hall menus.

International dishes are also growing in popularity.

“Quesadillas are No. 1 in the dining hall,” says DiGregorio, who adds that burritos and grain bowls are also top choices. This year, University Dining unveiled “Passport to Flavor,” a visiting chef series at the Southwick Food Court featuring a new international dish each week, like chicken bibimbap and gnocchi cauliflower alfredo. “It’s been really popular. We take the pizza station down once a week and run that program in its place, and we’ve seen almost double the orders,” says DiGregorio, who adds that pizza—long a staple of college diets—is actually seeing a decline in popularity throughout the dining halls.

For the university’s growing international student population, the ethnic food choices can also provide a comforting taste of home. “One of the nicest comments we’ve received came from an international student at the ICC,” Perry says. “He had been feeling homesick, and he said the meal felt like he was home. He sent a note to all of us, and it was great to hear.”

While everyone has food preferences, some have strict food requirements. Aaron Bennos, director of operations for University Dining, says more and more students are coming to campus each year with food allergies or religious restrictions (like halal diets). Aramark recently hired a registered nutritionist who can meet with students and parents during orientation to develop menus that will work for them during the academic year. The nutritionist is also available to students looking to lose weight or adjust their diet to increase their energy.

Sustainable Sustenance

One other concept that wasn’t considered much in the university’s cafeterias 40 or 50 years ago is sustainability. Today, however, it’s baked into every aspect of the dining halls, from how the food is grown to how it’s prepared and how it’s disposed of.

Twice a year, University Dining features a “Farm to Table” menu that showcases locally grown and locally sourced ingredients. It also uses FarmLogix, a technology platform that connects local farmers to large institutional kitchens, to find as many locally grown fruits and vegetables as possible. And someday, produce grown in the university’s new Urban Agriculture Greenhouse will likely be served in the University Dining Commons across the street. “Everyone likes to know where their food is coming from, and we always try to promote what’s local,” DiGregorio says.

On the flipside, the university’s food waste reduction efforts have been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for three consecutive years through its “Food Recovery Challenge.” The university began working with its solid waste contractor, Casella Waste Systems, to compost dining hall food scraps in 2013, almost a full year ahead of a statewide ban on commercial food waste disposal. Since then, the university has seen a steady increase in the amount of compost it’s generated, from 164 tons in fiscal year 2014 to 212 tons in FY15 and 247 tons in FY16.

"Locally Grown" sign featuring a list of some of Southwick Dining's locally grown produce, students getting lunch in the background
Farm-to-table fare is touted at the entrance to Southwick Dining.
 But even trucking all those tons of food scraps from the dining halls to a farm’s compost pile isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. That’s why the university has started to install special holding tanks, made by a company called Grind2Energy, that convert food scraps into a liquid that can then be pumped into a truck, much like a home septic system. “It’s a sustainable solution to composting,” says Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony, who notes that the first three tanks will be at the ICC, the Tsongas Center and the new Cumnock Marketplace.

Thanks to all those efforts, two of the university’s dining facilities—the South Campus Dining Commons and Crossroads Cafe at University Crossing—have been recognized as “3 Star Certified Green Restaurants” by the Green Restaurant Association, a national nonprofit that provides benchmarks for restaurants to become more environmentally responsible. O’Mahony expects the Cumnock Marketplace and University Suites dining facility to also be certified when they’re complete.

Of course, no matter how fresh and tasty the food is or how nice the decor, people will always have an opinion about the meal for which they’re paying. Moloney welcomes the feedback she gets on the dining halls from students at her twice-annual Chancellor Open Forums, as well as from her monthly meetings with Student Government Association leaders. But, as Siegel notes, “Even if you went to a restaurant that you really like and you were able to order anything off the full menu, after a year, you’d be tired of going there.”

“That’s why it’s our job now,” Perry says, “to keep up with the trends and to keep things fresh.”

Thankfully, they don’t have to worry about flying beef stew anymore.