CAFETERIA CUISINE

Fordham University had a problem: the main dining facility stank. That wouldn't be good anywhere; in New York City, it was an embarrassment. "It's hard to get around," said sophomore Laura Greenwood. "Lines are overlapping. You're trying to cut through, trying not to spill your drink." At best, she offered, the food "gets the job done." When campus administrators sought out a range of opinions, they'd hear the same complaints. Though it had undergone periodic face-lifts, McGinley Student Center was built in 1959, just ahead of the campus building boom of the '60s. "The facility needed upgrading," says Brian Byrne, vice president for administration. So, in December 2003, when the school launched a six-month, $6 million renovation of the cafeteria, congestion--not cuisine--was issue No. 1.

For decades, students were fed by the "scatter system": trays and silverware in one area, drinks in another, fries and ketchup separated by a mile. Now McGinley has eight serving stations--each with trays, silverware and beverage service--forming a semicircle. It's more food court than cafeteria--"destination dining," by any other name. The Gifts From the Garden station serves vegan fare, such as a hummus wrap with tabbouleh. At the Euro Kitchen, there's an entree of barbecue chicken, yellow rice and green beans topped with a sprig of parsley. "People are moving," says Fordham executive chef Michael DeMartino. "No lines, no anxiety."

At least not for him. These days, colleges are worrying intently about having competitive amenities, and they're giving food more than just a little thought. "When you spend that much to send your kid to school, you look at the atmosphere in the dining hall," says Ann Litt, author of "The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus." On school tours, she says, "I'm not sure I heard people ask about volumes in the library, but they'd ask, 'How many eateries?' " Thank (or blame) the Food Network for that question. College food services--and schools that provide their own food--are responding, bucking institutional molds to help clients recruit students and retain them. (And a school that keeps its kids happy, not coincidentally, may be able to profit from their satisfied eating forays.) It may be working: analysts say the $9.7 billion industry is expected to grow by 3.6 percent in 2004, a figure "a bit higher than it has been in the past," says Dennis Lombardi, vice president of Technomics, a food-service consulting firm.

They're not scholars, but contractors are studying eating patterns. Their core finding--that, for kids, convenience is king--is reshaping options. In April 2004, food-service manager Aramark surveyed 84,000 students at about 250 schools; 44 percent said they wanted healthier entrees, while 63 percent said "time is of the essence." So Aramark--on campuses from the University of Minnesota to the University of Florida--is launching Just4U, a program at all of its 400 schools, offering healthful food quickly. The theme: "Food That Fits Your Life." Menu items will be categorized--heart-healthy, low fat, low carb, low cal and vegetarian--and icons will adorn each dish to identify its classification. A "heart healthy" dish, the Tilapia Fresca Plate, which comes with basmati rice and cumin green beans, has three grams of fat. The fish it replaces, grilled salmon with pesto, had 13 grams without sides.

Basmati rice? you wonder. Students have increasingly educated palates, and they expect dining-hall food to be an extension of what's off campus. At Rice University, where the school spent $31 million to renovate its dining halls, one trendy takeoff is pumpkin enchiladas. "Not only do they know about specific food, but regions within that cuisine: northern Italian or southern Italian, Mandarin or Szechwan," says Matt Mantini, top chef for Sodexho Campus Services, the food contractor for Fordham and roughly 700 other schools. "More and more have dined in restaurants." That has led food providers to piggyback off retail trends in the "quick casual" and fast-food markets. The hot buzz phrase: "the kitchenless kitchen," which means you can watch your food being made, as at Subway. Chartwells, which serves 230 colleges, calls its kitchenless idea "Profiles in Good Taste."

Another emerging trend is beefing up what are known as points of service, so that students can find food all over campus, not just at dining halls. Sodexho has 10 signature brands--including Sub Connection and Mein Bowl, its Asian conceit--but its most popular concept is Jazzman's, a cafe that's Wi-Fi ready. The one at West Liberty State College in West Liberty, W.Va., has a fireplace.

Food contractors also work with national brands, from McDonald's to Au Bon Pain to Jamba Juice, but schools can't customize those locales, and the royalty fees can be more than double those of signature brands. "You make them an oasis," says Husein Kitabwalla, Sodexho vice president for brand development. "You keep dollars on campus." Late-night dollars, especially. Contractors are catching on to the fact that--guess what?--college kids eat late. According to Chartwells, 57 percent of kids have a meal in the "fourth meal period," industry parlance for 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Since that's when students commune, places like Jazzman's close late. Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., has experimented with room service for students on the meal plan--breakfast in bed, if you want.

Schools are making other arrangements, no matter how niche they are. The Berkeley College Dining Hall at Yale went chiefly organic in 2004 (with the support of Alice Waters, chef and owner of the renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., whose daughter is a senior). Students started growing fruits and vegetables on a one-acre garden. Among the offerings in the 250-seat hall are braised free-range chicken with leeks, pizza with goat cheese and caramelized onions, and meat loaf. It was so good, according to the Yale Daily News, that students tried to sneak in with fake IDs. Now, that's nouvelle cuisine.