May 9-15, 2007

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College Chow 101

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

IT MAY HAVE BEEN 15 years ago, but I still remember my favorite college meal: a huge slab of mozzarella, deep-fried and set lovingly atop a pool of marinara. My roommates and I dubbed this delicacy "cheese island," and there was no skipping dinner the nights it graced the menu.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the scene in college cafeterias is altogether different. Not only have the organic and sustainability movements taken firm root in the hearts and minds of today's food-savvy youth, but collegians now demand a dizzying array of culinary choices. It's no longer about filling their bellies so they stay awake in class; it's now about pleasing their palates and environmentally sensitive consciences as well. And schools are stepping up to meet the demand. One needs to look only as far as Palo Alto to see the revolution that has taken place.

On the day of my visit to Stanford Dining, executive director Rafi Taherian patiently explained the ins and outs of college food service. I'll spare you the details, but the bottom line is: colleges are charged with making something inherently monotonous (i.e., eating in essentially the same place every day) exciting and fresh.

And, perhaps more importantly, they must meet the demands of an increasingly diverse student body with wildly divergent dietary needs and restrictions. When you've got to feed vegetarians, vegans, kosher students, those requiring halal meats, peanut-allergic individuals and so on, you've got your work cut out for you.

But bravo to Stanford for a job well done. Taherian, who studied architecture and urban planning in Italy before attending the Culinary Institute of America, began eliminating transfats more than four years ago, well before doing so become a national mandate. In fact, improving the health profile of menu items has long been one of his top priorities. "Students don't need to know how much sodium nitrate is in a hot dog," he says. "I need to know how to get it out of the food." (The answer? Cure the dogs in celery juice instead.) Students can also find out the nutritional breakdown of their meals online. If you're diabetic or even a wrestler on a calorie-controlled diet, this functionality can be quite important.

My tour included stops at three of the university's seven dining facilities. It's not all glitz and glam—some of the spaces had distinctly nursing home décor. But I was duly impressed by the Chinese chef forming handmade pork buns in one dining center (they were delicious) and a cook rolling fresh corn tortillas a building away.

As a private university with a hefty endowment, Stanford can afford specialized fare that may be unavailable to students at your average public institution. But students everywhere now care much more about the quality of their food than they did a decade ago, and their voices (and tuition dollars) are being heeded nationwide. Next up? How to make the quality of hospital food follow suit.

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