Inflation hits US college dining halls with fewer menu options for students

University of California at Berkeley will serve fewer hamburgers and rely more on stews where beef is a component, but not a centrepiece. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
US food prices climbed 10.9 per cent from a year earlier in July. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

NEW YORK - US college students returning to campus this fall will find their dining halls experimenting with everything from fewer salad dressings to "plant-powered" Mondays as schools look for ways to adapt to soaring inflation.

University cafeterias are experiencing many of the same challenges as the wider food service industry, with supply-chain constraints and labour shortages adding costs and operational snags.

Their predicament, though, has an added twist: Higher education institutions tend to set tuition, room and board fees months in advance, meaning those rates were often put in place before ingredients became quite so expensive.

US food prices climbed 10.9 per cent from a year earlier in July, according to Labour Department data, the biggest increase since 1979. Prices for cereal and frozen fruits and vegetables saw their largest annual gains on record.

That has nudged schools to seek creative approaches to ease the pressure and to accelerate existing initiatives to slash food waste, offer smaller portions and boost plant-focused options - efforts that were initially aimed at meeting environmental goals and pleasing health-conscious students.

University of California at Berkeley will serve fewer hamburgers and rely more on stews where beef is a component, but not a centrepiece.

Students at Yale University are getting 20 per cent fewer choices for hot breakfasts. Their salad bar will contain about half the items it used to, with the school cutting less-popular offerings such as shredded carrots, radishes and beets and paring down bean varieties. They'll also have the option of a pre-designed salad.

Sodexo North America, which designs and manages food services for about 500 US campuses, has revamped menus to include one day a week focused on plant-based dishes, which it says typically have costs that are 20 per cent lower than ones that are animal-protein based.

"This is the worst supply chain situation I've seen,'' said Mr Dave Kourie, chief procurement officer for Sodexo North America.

Exploding costs are an obstacle for school meal programmes that are still recovering from problems that arose in earlier phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, when social distancing guidelines kept diners away and opportunities to cater big-group events were sparse.

UC Berkeley is betting on an approach that includes a narrower, but tastier, menu, said Mr Christopher Henning, executive director of dining at Berkeley.

Yale is making similar moves. It will reduce the number of from-scratch, olive oil-based salad dressings from five to three.

"We're not taking options away. It's controlled variety," said Mr Rafi Taherian, associate vice-president for Yale Hospitality. "You may not get so many options in one day, but you get the same options over weeks.''

Mr Taherian said Yale has found more variety also increases food waste, meaning a tighter daily menu could help combat a long-time drag on campus dining halls' bottom line while being better for the environment.

In another bid to address food waste, Yale's roasted chickens are now made to order to avoid cooking too many that might go unused.

Price and availability problems have given schools added reason to make a change they already saw as essential: Embracing more plant-based food.

There is increasing demand for these items on campus, including at schools where the population is becoming more international - meaning students might hail from places where the cuisine is less meat-focused.

A sous chef prepares a plant-based hamburger in the kitchen at UC Berkeley. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

University of Massachusetts Amherst, which serves 50,000 meals per day, offers steamed dim sum twice a week and makes 4,500 to 5,000 fresh sushi rolls daily, said Mr Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary services for a system where 82 per cent of the menu offering is plant-based.

Some tactics for coping with food inflation and supply-chain issues won't be especially visible to students. Cornell University, for example, established a buying agreement with two other nearby schools earlier in the pandemic to get better prices and avoid limited supplies.

Other schools are focused on dealing with the headwinds presented by the tight labour market, including relying more on disposable, recyclable containers instead of reusable plates at a moment when hiring dishwashers is difficult and expensive.

Each such move marks an effort to improve the economics of a campus offering that, much like dormitories and parking, has historically been a moneymaker for colleges and universities.

"We continue to be more efficient," Mr Toong said. BLOOMBERG

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