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Fit for royalty: North country campuses serve up delicious dishes

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CANTON — Feeding students has come a long way from sea foam green trays topped with square pizza, tater-tots and canned peaches. North country college students are more likely to encounter quiche, paninis, sushi and kabobs.

Dining services at St. Lawrence University and SUNY Potsdam were recently recognized for their on-campus eateries.

St. Lawrence University’s dining service was recently ranked on two ‘best of’ lists. The Princeton Review ranked the Canton liberal arts college’s dining facilities among the best 20 in the nation. The Daily Meal, a food-oriented website, placed St. Lawrence 42nd out of 52 ranked colleges.

At SUNY Potsdam, students named the school’s dining services as the best in the entire SUNY system.

“We’re really happy to be No. 1,” said Abby Lee, marketing coordinator for the Potsdam Auxiliary and College Educational Services, or PACES.

The school’s dining services is administered by PACES, a non-profit organization overseen by a board of directors which includes students, faculty, staff and administrators.

“The board is really what shapes our success, because of the mixture of leadership,” said Ms. Lee. “So much of this is student-driven.”

St. Lawrence County college students are eating like royalty, but that is only because north country universities are working to stay ahead of an ever more discriminating student palate, said George Arnold, Potsdam’s director of Dining Services.

“Student tastes have become much more varied,” said Mr. Arnold. “20 years ago, mozzarella was exotic. Now students know flavors like wasabi and chipotle.”

That meant Mr. Arnold, and American Culinary Federation certified executive chef, and SUNY Potsdam went out to find versatile chefs with restaurant experience to oversee their kitchens, and cast a wider net to find diverse ingredients. A walk through the Thatcher Hall pantry reveals dozens of different herbs and spices and an entire wall full of different grains — including three different kinds of quinoa.

“It all starts with the food,” he said. “If the food is bad, the place is bad... we don’t shy away from buying the good stuff.”

At SUNY Canton, it meant bringing in well-known and established national chains like KFC and Taco Bell to join regional favorite Jreck’s Subs in the food court.

Students don’t just want tried-and-true flavors; they want variety, too.

SUNY Potsdam serves up international options like kebabs, Thai curries and sushi at 22 different eateries at six locations throughout campus.

“No SUNY institution of this size has as many eating opportunities,” Ms. Lee said.

At St. Lawrence University, Dining Services Director Cynthia Y. Atkins found that students are turning away from the pizza and ramen noodle stereotype.

“They are more selective,” she said. “We’re finding students are eating a lot more healthy. They are eating a lot of vegetables and a lot of fruits. I think some of it is because there is such an emphasis on it now in the secondary schools that they are carrying over.”

Clarkson University has taken this a step further by publishing menus with nutritional information from some campus eateries online.

All four colleges tailor their menu to meet students’ special needs.

SUNY Potsdam’s eateries provide vegetarian and vegan choices, as well as menu items for students with gluten and lactose intolerances.

In addition to extensive vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, St. Lawrence will also alter selections for students with food allergies, Ms. Atkins said.

“We work with students who have allergies and who have gluten or lactose intolerance,” she said. “We have very good selections of foods for people with allergies and different intolerances.”

Colleges are increasingly putting an emphasis on meals made from scratch, rather than prefabricated heat-and-serve food. At Dexter’s Cafe, every item is made from scratch by PACES chefs except for a handful of dessert items.

At SUNY Potsdam, some dining options enable students to customize their own food. At the Student Union Dining Court, a la carte burritos and pizzas are made to order. Chefs made low-cost upgrades to the normal faire with new flavors, like cilantro-lime infused chicken and poblano pepper sauce.

Clarkson University’s student center contains a Mongolian grill, where students can choose their own ingredients for a stir-fry-like dish.

Students actually suggest menu items at St. Lawrence University, whose Recipes From Home program asks freshmen to submit their favorite family recipes for consideration.

“If we can enlarge it so we can feed volumes of people, we do,” Ms. Atkins said. “We put in our menu and note that it is a student recipe.”

St. Lawrence also holds theme dinners, where areas are decorated and employees dress up to match a menu selection, creating an immersive dining experience. Themes vary from a culture or region to a fictional setting like the Harry Potter universe.

SUNY Potsdam, Clarkson and St. Lawrence University have all committed to serving locally-produced food as part of their dining service. SUNY Potsdam played a role in creating the North Country Grown farming cooperative, which has expanded to provide local food to St. Lawrence University, too.

“We purchase as many local items as we can,” said Ms. Atkins, who noted that over 10 percent of the food St. Lawrence served in 2011 was locally produced. “We work a lot with North Country Grown co-op. They are kind of a middle man basically because we can’t have everybody stopping at our door.”

The cooperative is helpful, Mr. Arnold said, because most farms in the north country are family farms growing a variety of crops.

“The schools are willing to buy in bulk, but our farmers choose to not become mono-crop farms,” he said.

SUNY Potsdam’s receipts reveal purchases from dozens of north country farms, a variety that comes at a price, said Mr. Arnold.

“If all my food came through this way I would be out of business,” he said.

Buying locally sometimes reduces the fuel and cost it takes to bring food to students, but Mr. Arnold gave another economic reason to buy local.

“Part of it is local food, part of it is regional and another part is state, and it is really about keeping dollars within the economy,” he said. “If my only concern was carbon footprint, it might be better to buy food from Quebec.”

Mr. Arnold said PACES and SUNY Potsdam believe food service has an educational role to play on campus.

“We’re not a business; we’re a college,” he said. “Food choices have economic, social, environmental and health consequences. This is to model for students that your food choices have consequence, and our students appreciate that we do this.”

During Earth Week 2012, Clarkson University’s dining services hosted a Sustainable Iron Chef competition using only locally grown ingredients to help educate budding ‘locavores’ on options available nearby. The university plans on hosting another such competition this year.

Schools have also emphasized service and presentation as elements of their dining services, switching to higher quality, reusable dishes and silverware.

It isn’t just the food being served, but how they access the food. Student meal plans have evolved from guaranteeing a set number of meals each week or semester to allowing flexibility.

“We still have traditional plans that give students an allotment of meals,” Ms. Lee said. “More of our plans involve flex credits, a spending account that allow students to buy coffee or a snack. They can take their residential meal allowances to other places on campus.”

St. Lawrence has a similar program allowing students to deduct from accounts whenever they want to buy a snack or an item from an on-campus market, allowing students to eat what they want, when they want.

“I know we’re very student oriented,” Ms. Atkins said. “We try very hard to accommodate the student’s needs.”

Finally, schools like Clarkson University and SUNY Potsdam are making sure their dining services uphold both campuses’ ecologically friendly reputations. At SUNY Potsdam, discarded food portions like orange peels and broccoli cores are saved and returned to farmers for composting, while at Clarkson, many of these products are fed into an anaerobic digester providing energy for the campus.

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