Budding connoisseurs seek new college food options
By STEPHANIE REITZ
MIDDLETOWN, Conn. (AP) -- Not all college students are willing to live on cold pizza, ramen noodles and greasy takeout.
Some, like Wesleyan University junior Nica Latto, prefer wedges of locally produced artisanal cheeses added to the mix, perhaps a gouda with a slightly nutty undertone or a Gruyere for a fondue party while studying with classmates.
So to satisfy palates that lean more gourmet than grub, Latto and several friends organized a co-op in which fancy cheeses from a nearby Connecticut farm are delivered each week to the Middletown campus and distributed to students, many of whom line up with baguettes -- and meal cards -- in hand.
While universities nationwide have updated their dining hall menus to meet the increasingly epicurean expectations of students like Latto, many students are also taking things a step further and bringing fancy fare to campus on their own.
For some, it means launching co-ops to get everything from fair-trade coffee to fancy herbs or hand-rolled butter from nearby farms. For others, it means collaborating with the vendors who stock their dorm cafeterias to get quinoa, kohlrabi or other non-traditional items on their menus.
In California, a student-run collective near the University of California, Berkeley, gained scores of members as soon as it opened last winter, the legacy of students' fight against fast casual chain Panda Express' now-dashed 2009 plans to open a site there.
Now, the Berkeley Student Food Cooperative is the flagship example in a national effort to train collegians to start their own food co-ops emphasizing healthy, local food in student-run storefronts, campus cafes and other spots.
At Wesleyan, the plan to sell shares in a co-op for fancy cheese drew hundreds of students within a few weeks of launch. Its weekly distributions started in February, introducing the members to dozens of cheese varieties delivered from the small family-run Cato Corner Farm in nearby Colchester.
All spring, students have lined up on Wednesday afternoons to pick up cheeses. Many also have posted recipes on a blog the organizers created for the co-op to share creative ways they've cooked or served their bounty on pasta, in omelets or as fondue.
"A lot of people are ambitious about cooking (with the cheeses), but they try a bite when they pick it up at the distribution and end up eating it right then," said Latto, a 21-year-old from Acton, Mass., who organizes the co-op with fellow students Zachary Malter, Sarah Telzak and Kaitlin Lee.
They call it a natural outgrowth of many Wesleyan students' leanings toward sustainable, locally produced foods.
"I think our generation or just people in general are becoming more conscious about the quality of what they eat, where it comes from and if it's sustainable," said Malter, 20, a sophomore from Irvington, N.Y.
Bon Appetit Management Co., Wesleyan's food service provider, lets students use their university-issued dining points toward the cheese co-op, as it also does for students on other campuses for farmers' markets and other non-dorm dining venues.
At the University of Pennsylvania, where about 5,000 students are on a campus meal plan, administrators have worked with Bon Appetit and students to meet demand for more authentic ethnic foods, seasonable produce and artisan breads.
Today's salad bars at Penn go far beyond iceberg lettuce and sliced tomatoes, and now include tofu along with unusual options such as squash salad with dandelions, based on a Native American recipe.
"What we are seeing with the young people today is much more of an emphasis on high quality, taste and variety. They are more sophisticated in regard to the things they are looking for, including whether it's local or organic," said Marie Witt, Penn's vice president for business services, which include the dining halls.
Witt, a Penn alumna, said she remembers the days when students were thrilled at the chance to scoop their own ice cream in the dining facilities. Now, they request sushi, meat produced without antibiotics, cage-free eggs and foods that mirror those they've eaten in their global travels or from their homeland ("If it's not authentic, they will know and they will tell us," she added).
And while pizza remains popular, students expect far more than the standard cheese-and-pepperoni fare. Penn now offers white pizza, spinach pizza, vegetarian pizza, pizzas with special multi-grain crust -- anything leaning toward new tastes and trends.
Witt said they see that desire for novelty in the emails and survey responses they receive from students. But the clamor for edamame, tandoori chicken and organic yogurt doesn't mean they're getting rid of the old standbys.
"They ask for all of these things," she said, "but they still do eat the cheese fries."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.