Late nights on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus mean chunks of deep-fried chicken covered in sweet and sticky orange glaze fly out the doors at the Panda Express on the corner of West Grace and Shafer streets.

It is one of the busiest Panda Express stores on any U.S. college campus, according to VCU officials. They say the popularity of that location of the fast-casual American Chinese chain, which accepts cash and credit cards from anyone, is partly due to the eatery being part of VCU’s meal plans.

From 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. every day, students can eat there for a few bucks less than their out-of-pocket counterparts simply by swiping their VCU ID. With upward of 9,000 VCU meal plans expected to be sold this semester, that’s a lot of Orange Chicken.

Campus dining is an ever-changing concept.

VCU’s partnerships with highly recognizable national chains like Panda Express show the efforts taken to give students options that go beyond traditional dining halls. Current VCU meal plans cost from $209 to $2,290 per semester, and provide students with both meal swipes in campus dining halls, but also “dining dollars” that they can use for Panda Express, Starbucks, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Subway, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Chili’s, Pizza Hut and a list of others.

VCU reports the average cost of a meal with a dining plan is $8.66, compared with off-campus meals that cost roughly $13.45.

Not that the dining halls are obsolete. At VCU’s all-you-can-eat Shafer Court Dining Center, students can now choose from freshly prepared sushi and poke bowls, stir-fry stations, steak nights, salad bars featuring whole grains and more. Comfort foods such as fried chicken and pizza are college mainstays, but now those drumsticks can be gluten-free and the pies are made on gluten-free crusts with vegan toppings upon request.

“It’s not rocket science: Students tell us what they want; we build it; they come,” said Diane Reynolds, VCU assistant vice president for business services. School officials take the pulse on food trends year after year, and when something is hot, they work to make it a reality on campus. It’s the reason they pushed for Panda Express, she said, as well as something new called Shake Smart, a company that makes healthful protein and meal-replacement shakes. That’ll open later this fall.

With meal plans that include money to spend at outside restaurants and even coffee shops, “the lines are blurred — people don’t necessarily even know you have a meal plan,” Reynolds said.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics reports that the “board” part of room and board, which typically includes the meal programs, averaged about $4,850 over two semesters at four-year institutions for the 2016-17 school year, the most recent data available. At two-year schools, the costs averaged $3,149 over two semesters. Nationally, those programs offered roughly 20 meals per week for students.

A decade ago, those programs were $2,301 and $1,830, respectively. That means the meals costs have more than doubled at four-year schools, while two-year schools have seen an increase of 72 percent.

But next to academics, food is a key factor when prospective students and their parents are making decisions about where to go to college, dining officials say. That means there’s pressure on the schools to stay up to date with food trends because today’s college students are much more savvy and food-conscious than previous generations.

“People think college is burgers and fries and chicken tenders, and we do sell plenty of that,” said Maya Vincelli, assistant director of retail operations at the University of Richmond. Increasingly, however, “people really want a beautifully composed salad, pickled vegetables ... [and] roasted vegetables,” she said, noting that roasted vegetables are the most popular topping on the salad bar every day.

UR dining plans range from $465 to $3,640 per semester. About 75 percent of the 3,000 undergraduate students purchase meal plans.

“Clean menus are pretty important right now,” Vincelli added, “and it really wasn’t before, so that has changed.” By clean, she means fresh foods, not canned or frozen, and foods free of preservatives and additives. Students like knowing where their foods come from, down to the name of the local and regional farm and farmers, if possible.

“We’re able to talk about those farms and those fisheries, and that lets us convey our mission to our students in a really unique way,” Vincelli said.

UR executive chef Tyler Betzhold said traditional home-cooked meals have dropped off in popularity as students preferences lean toward customizable and build-your-own meals. Numerous specialty stations feature everything from poke and fresh fish and Chinese dim sum to Mediterranean bowls and omelet stations. An avocado bar was added this year, and avocado toast with everything spice — that spice being a specific request by students — is a popular concept, he said.

Vegan and vegetarian options are present every day, and students with specialty dietary needs have access to their own areas of the sprawling dining hall.

Today’s college students “have been exposed to more flavors, and they’re more conscious about sustainability,” Betzhold said. From an operational standpoint, that means his team places more orders for foods each week, but in smaller quantities, because much of the food is fresh, from vegetables to fish. It’s more expensive that way, but by giving students the foods they want, there’s less waste, which saves money.

“A large majority of our students are well-traveled, and they’ve been around good food,” Betzhold said, adding that for young adults, eating “is much more about the experience, too.”

Food has become such a hot topic that Randolph-Macon College student government officials now have a seat at the table — pun intended — and a greater role in developing what students eat there.

Nearly 1,500 students are enrolled at the Ashland-based college this semester — the largest number of students in the school’s history — and 1,180 of them are on meal plans. The plans cost $820 to $2,900 per semester.

Senior Food Service Director John Gaughan, who took over the meal program earlier this year, echoes officials at other schools in that students are becoming more vocal about plant-based diets, the desire for whole grains and grilled meats and vegetables, as well as gluten-free products, customizable meals and easy access to nutritional information. Nearly 35 percent of the students are athletes, he said, which is another reason many are looking for healthful but satisfying meals that can sustain them throughout the day.

The school’s main dining hall serves four meal periods during the day, seven days a week. There’s also a smaller cafe, Birdsong Grill, within the student commons building that offers made-to-order meals, the most popular being burritos and bowls.

With a captive audience that eats within the dining hall or at Birdsong every day, and several times a day, “our challenge is to keep [the food] interesting not only in the menu mix but how we present it,” Gaughan said. “We eat with our eyes first, and all of that is important.”

That’s where students help, he explained.

SGA President Tristan Ramsey said the association created a food committee that’s specifically tasked with conveying information about student food needs to Gaughan and school administrators. Committee representatives meet with administrators monthly.

“People are a lot more aware about what goes into their food,” said Ramsey, a senior and Chesapeake native. Social media has helped, too, thanks to a campus dining app that provides menus and nutritional info.

“Students aren’t asking for crazy things, like Kobe beef with every meal,” Gaughan said. “People are looking for real ingredients, [and] they’re asking for consistency, something prepared fresh that’s kept that way throughout the meal period.”

Little extras, such as Greek yogurt, flavored cream cheeses and whole-grain breads, even a make-your-own stir-fry station, have been added in response to students’ requests.

“That’s not stuff that’s off-the-charts,” Gaughan said. “We can do most things that students want; we just need to know what it is.”

He added, “It’s something we can manage if we listen.”

Commenting is limited to Times-Dispatch subscribers. To sign up, click here.
If you’re already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.