UMass Amherst tops best college dining list, again

The Boston Globe, , by Laura Krantz and Sara Salinas

When the Princeton Review eats at University of Massachusetts Amherst dining halls, it comes back for seconds.

The college has topped the company’s list of the best campus dining for the second year in a row.

Two university chefs appeared on NBC-TV’s “Today” show on Tuesday morning to revel in the recognition. And back in Amherst, chefs cooked up a supper menu Tuesday night that featured baked salmon with guava rice, barbecue beef brisket, Parmesan red pepper pesto polenta, and local sautéed kale. There were also stuffed mushrooms with beans, tomato and avocado, and linguine with saffron clam sauce. Dessert? New England maple almond pudding.

The $69 million dining program at UMass Amherst is a national model for sourcing local foods and preparing dishes from around the world to satisfy the palates of its diverse student body of about 22,000 undergraduates. Students love the food, though some say they wish it wasn’t so expensive.

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UMass has been among the top three schools on the list for several years, according to a spokesman for the university. Last year, the school’s Minuteman mascot appeared on the “Today” show following the release of the rankings.

The Princeton Review provides test prep materials and tutoring, and compiles college rankings. The new report ranked Bowdoin College in Maine second, followed by Washington University in St. Louis and St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

UMass Amherst claims its campus dining operations are the largest in the country, serving 45,000 meals a day and 5.5 million meals a year. The program is run by the university, not a third-party vendor like at many colleges, and funded entirely by student boarding fees. Third-party companies run the dining programs at the other four UMass campuses.

Garett DiStefano, director of residential dining services auxiliary enterprises, said the dining hall has relationships with local farmers and sources up to 30 percent of its produce locally.

He met recently with local poultry farmers to work on buying more chicken nearby. Currently, about 6 percent is local, he said. The school also buys underutilized types of seafood from local vendors, like dogfish or hake. Those are cheaper and often just as tasty.

“You’re supporting the local economy by supporting the local fisherman as well as reducing some of your costs,” he said.

A student served fish curry, made with locally sourced red fish, in the Hampshire Dining Commons at UMASS Amherst.

One challenge is bringing in fresh, local food during the cold months, when the dining hall is busiest. The school works with Little Leaf Farms in Devens, which grows greens year-round in greenhouses, DiStefano said.

Many of the fresh foods are simply a response to student requests, he said. Students now eat more plant-based proteins and have asked for more fruits and vegetables. DiStefano said the student body at UMass Amherst has become more diverse over the years, meaning students are used to eating different types of cuisine.

The dining halls have accommodated, even going so far as to ask parents to submit family recipes, which they re-create on campus. They publish a cookbook of the home recipes.

The dining hall also has a smartphone app where students can view the menus at the four dining halls and filter out foods that could irritate any allergies they have.

On Tuesday, the Hampshire Dining Commons on the UMass campus was serving chicken with kiwi relish, lemon quinoa with Craisins and thyme, local roasted sweet potatoes, and roasted eggplant with goat cheese and pine nuts. Also available: sushi, steamed mussels, house-made corn tortillas, Korean barbecue chicken, and a salad with strawberries, fennel, and oranges.

The food is not cheap, however. The unlimited dining plan cost $2,891 per semester last year ($5,782 for the year). Those prices are similar to many of the dining plans at major private universities in Boston.

At UMass Dartmouth, an unlimited dining plan costs $4,746 for the year. It costs $4,832 at UMass Lowell.

UMass Dining staff discussed menu offerings with a student.

Tuition for in-state students at UMass Amherst is about $15,000, or about $28,000 with room and board. For out-of-state and foreign students, the total cost for a year is about $46,000.

DiStefano said it can be more expensive to buy local, but the school tries to offset that by using the ingredients efficiently. For example, a chicken could be roasted, the carcass used for a soup stock, and the oil to make a sauce.

“Then you’re spreading the cost out per plate,” DiStefano said.

Students said the dining hall is amazing but not always affordable. Rising senior Lily Wallace canceled her plan for next year because of the cost. She said many of her classmates also love the dining hall, but not all can afford it. Many who move off campus to save money find creative ways to afford food, such as attending campus events that offer free pizza.

“It’s a question on a lot of students’ minds. Like, ‘How am I going to eat?’ ” said Wallace, a political science and civic engagement major from Belchertown.

Rising senior Kenny Fairneny is moving off campus next year but will keep his food plan. He said he isn’t a very good cook.

He also appreciates the high quality food but is concerned that the university spends too much on such a luxury. He sees lots of new building on campus and worries about rising tuition prices.

“I think there’s better ways that they could spend the money, but I do enjoy having nice food,” said the sociology major from Weymouth.