OXFORD, Ohio – At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which claims it has the best cafeteria food in the nation, students eat in dining centers that look more like food courts in upscale shopping centers than typical college dining halls.
MU is one of a number of universities that have taken campus dining to a level beyond the University of Michigan, where many students say they are unhappy with their dining experiences.
At MU, most students said they were satisfied with the food, some even going to the point of calling it one of the best aspects of the school. In a recent survey of students by MU’s dining services, 92 percent said they were satisfied in general with their dining experiences.
“The food at Miami is better than any other school I’ve ever eaten at,” said MU junior Kaleigh Coughlin, who has also dined at Ohio State University, Xavier University, the University of Cincinnati and Ohio-Wesleyan University.
Couglin cited the freshness of ingredients, large selection and generous portion sizes as pluses.
The food at MU is regarded so highly on campus that many students who live off-campus purchase meal plans, MU sophomore Kat Peterson said.
Another reason students said they like the food at MU is its quality per dollar. The basic meal plan costs $1,670 per semester and includes three meals a day, which comes out to roughly $4.82 each. At the University of Michigan, meals cost students about $7 each on the default 13 meal plan.
Other meal plans at MU cost more, but allow students more flex dollars, the equivalent of the University of Michigan’s Entree Plus points, that can be used at one of the school’s 10 a la carte locations, including a 24-hour convenience store and a snack bar that stays open until 3 a.m.
MU is not the only school that offers students high-quality food for low costs. At Franklin W. Olin College in Needham, Mass., ranked second in campus food in the latest Princeton Review ranking, students have a choice of two meal plans. The most economical of those, the Blue Plan, costs $1,700 per semester, grants unlimited entry to the dining hall every day, and also includes $150 in Dining Dollars, the equivalent of Entree Plus points. If a student were to eat three meals a day, he would pay about $5.78 each and have the added bonus of the extra $150.
University Housing spokesperson Alan Levy said it is difficult to compare different institutions’ pricing because of differences in geography that lead to differences in the cost of raw food.
“You have to be careful that you’re literally comparing apples to apples,” he said.
One of the reasons the University’s room and board costs are the second highest in the Big Ten behind Northwestern University is that the cost of living is higher in Ann Arbor, Levy said. He explained that the University’s basket of goods – an indicator of how much certain foods cost – is more expensive than at other colleges. The same goods are more expensive in Ann Arbor than in places such as Iowa City or West Lafayette.
“It’s not because we’re bad managers, or that we don’t know how to negotiate,” Levy said. “It’s just that the cost of doing things in the greater Ann Arbor area is on the high end.”
Levy said that when the Hill Dining Center is constructed, the University will have the capability to offer a dining experience more comparable to other schools with state-of-the-art facilities.
The dining center is part of a $65 million project to renovate the Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall. Plans for the new center include preparing food directly in front of students and offering more entree options every night. A second-level emporium will act more as a lounge than a dining facility and will be equipped with wireless Internet and a snack bar.
When asked to compare the food at his alma mater, Middlebury College in Vermont, which the Princeton Review ranked 10th, to the University’s dining services, Levy said he would be more comfortable comparing them after Hill Dining Center is complete.
“We’ll be able to compete against Middlebury’s brand-new facilities because we know our facilities need updating,” he said. “We’re tremendously excited about the new dining center. It will be the first new cafeteria since 1967 when Bursley was built. What was acceptable in college dining then has very little correspondence now.”
He added that he visited Middlebury recently.
“They actually have a pretty fabulous food service now,” he said. “It’s really discouraging that it’s so different from when I was there.”
Some students think food at the University rivals that at other schools.
LSA freshman Danielle Gill said food at the University of Michigan rivals other schools she’s eaten at, such as Northern Illinois University.
“Ours was a lot better,” she said, citing vegetarian options and how the University provides caloric information as positives.
The University’s food is similar in quality to Michigan State University’s, LSA freshman Kristin Stebbins said.
If MSU students choose the standard $2,872 20-meal plan, each meal costs about $5.12.
But meals at some schools cost more than at the University.
At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, ranked first in the latest Princeton Review food rankings, meals have a high price tag – about $8.96 each. That high price, though, translates into high-quality food, said Bowdoin’s assistant director of dining Michele Gaillard.
She added that students rated the food high because the staff is highly trained, and most of the cooking is done on location. For example, all soups are made from scratch. The service is also very personalized, she said, because the school is so small.
“The people on the breakfast line know what you want in an omelet before you order it,” she said. “It’s like home. It’s better than home.”
To illustrate her point, Gaillard told a story about a student excited to be back in the cafeteria line after a summer at home who said, “This is the first home-cooked meal I’ve had in months.”
Bowdoin uses the quality of food as a recruiting tool, Gaillard said.
“People have heard about how good the food is,” she said. “We’re in a cold climate, the winters are long and we’re in a rural area – having something like good food to look forward to is important.”
Bowdoin also operates a university-owned pub that accepts meal plan dollars in exchange for beer and wine from students over 21 years old.
To read the other story in this series, Dorm meals cost more than students realize, click here