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At the Sodexho-operated dining hall at Seattle Pacific University, the peanut butter is plentiful, piled into a container alongside a similar bin holding globs of grape jelly. Across town at Seattle University, where the cafeteria's administered by the same company which oversees the canteens at Amazon and the Gates Foundation, the sophisticated peanut butter buffet includes orange marmalade, marionberry jam, and apricot jam, ready to be spread on house-baked bread.
According to The Daily Beast, the two very different dining halls represent the best in college eats. Both schools this month were named to a top-20 "best food" list. Although the website's methodology isn't completely clear, the scores were apparently determined through student rankings, local restaurant counts, and the percentage of the school's food budget devoted to local and organic ingredients.
Like most contemporary dining halls, Seattle Pacific University has done away with its trays to conserve dishwashing water and reduce food waste. But the cafeteria, which serves 1,350 students, is otherwise very much like the cafeteria most college grads remember. Students queue at stations devoted to pizza, burgers, comfort food, and "international food," which this Monday meant a mashed-potato bowl with 1600 miligrams of sodium. For dessert, there are chocolate-covered strawberries, ice cream, and brownies. "We go through 1,200 chocolate chip cookies at lunch," general manager Kim Karstens says.
SPU's cafeteria hews closely to standards set by Sodexo, which means its menus are handed down from corporate offices and most of its food comes from Sysco. Many of the dishes are overly sweet, such as a signature "smokehouse pizza" slathered in barbecue sauce, and vegetables are commonly overcooked. But the breads and soups prepared in-house are quite good, including a crackly cheese crisp and an oniony lentil spinach soup that presages post-graduation meals. (Members of the public can buy an all-you-can-eat dinner pass for $12.05.)
"We buy local and organic as much as we can," Karstens says. "We try for sustainability and variety. On our salad bar, we'll run multiple legumes."
The dining hall has also upped fruit consumption by putting apples and bananas in bins and relaxing rules preventing students from taking fruit out of the cafeteria. Still, many students have different culinary priorities.
"This gives you the worst breath ever," a male student told a friend in the salad bar line, motioning at a certain salad dressing. "You've got to do it."
Students at SPU buy cafeteria access by the meal, so trying to achieve halitosis through salad dressing carries no monetary risk. At Seattle University, where more than 20 percent of the school's 7,000 students lunch at the main dining hall, every item is individually priced. The increasingly popular "declining balance" system requires students to deposit a lump sum in their dining accounts, against which every latte and salmon cake is assessed.
"There are still a lot of schools that do all you can eat, but that's an incentive for cheap food," says Buzz Hofford, resident district manager for Bon Appetit, the Palo Alto company in charge of Seattle University's cafeterias. "Declining balance enables us to provide a lot more choices."
Bon Appetit's 400 cafeterias nationwide have leeway to establish their own menus, but must observe corporate sustainability guidelines. At least half of the ingredients used at Seattle University are sourced from within 150 miles. On Tuesday, the menu included grilled salmon from Lummi Island ($8.95), summer squash linguine ($5.95), and chile rellenos made with Beecher's Flagship cheddar and charred yellow tomato salsa ($6.75). The salad bar was stocked with wheatberries, pickled beans, patty pan squash, roasted parsnips, and farro, all with local provenances.
"One of our biggest challenges here is we're surrounded by competition," Hofford says of the schools' 12th Avenue location. "We've got to keep prices competitive."
Most everything served at Seattle University is pretty terrific. It's hard to gripe about under-salted kale in a college cafeteria, or wishing there was wine to pair with the salmon. Seattle University's food inspires those kinds of grown-up thoughts, which Hofford says is intentional: By rescinding the trough model, Bon Appetit is trying to teach students how to eat like adults.
"When the freshmen come in, they gravitate toward the grill, they gravitate toward the pizza," he says. "But we expose them to other foods."
According to café manager Johan Austneberg, 15 pizzas--featuring a sauce made from local tomatoes, carrots, and celery and crust made from Idaho flour--will usually suffice for lunch. "They really mix it up," he says.
In addition to making sure there's always freshly grilled salmon available, Hofford regularly addresses students on issues relating to sustainability and nutrition.
"By the time they leave here, they're educated culinarily," he says. "They've established eating patterns for the rest of their lives."