Remember John Belushi’s infamous stroll through the EMU’s buffet line in 1978’s Animal House? He overstuffs his tray with burgers, desserts, sandwiches and fruit in a scene that now serves as a time capsule for both how the old Fishbowl looked and what the University of Oregon’s residence hall foods used to be; both have now been completely remodeled and updated to fit modern times.
Subsisting on nothing but school lunches for a year may sound like a punishment worse than purgatory, but the food served today in UO residence halls might be some of the best in the nation: It ranked No. 29 in Business Insider’s 2015 list of the 50 U.S. colleges with the best food and received an A+ grade from Niche.com, a college review and ranking website.
Each day, about 12,000 meals are served in the residence halls, totaling nearly two million meals yearly, according to Tom Driscoll, the associate director of housing and director of food services. With this scale of food production, many companies choose to select the “can-to-pan” method of pre-packaged corporate foods, but UO’s residence halls use local ingredients and make as much as 90 percent of meals from scratch.
Executive Chef Bron Smith recently purchased 5,900 pounds of blueberries from Confluence Farms in Junction City that he expects will be used in smoothies and yogurt parfaits for a majority of the year. The flour for pizza dough is grown in Oregon, most of the beef comes from Oregon farms and many more locally sourced ingredients are purchased from co-op farms.
“It stimulates a lot of the local economy here and keeps these guys intact,” Smith said. “Subsequently, we’re getting great product back. Product-wise, the core ingredients here are so much better.”
In April 2015, UO opened a 21,685-square-foot Central Kitchen at 1743 Columbia St., which was constructed for $7.05 million. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold-rated building allows for the storage, preparation and preservation of food for Hamilton, Carson, the Living Learning Center and Global Scholars Hall, as well as other UO eateries such as Knight Library’s Daily Grind. The Central Kitchen also hosts the catering department, a wood shop and office and storage spaces. The vast majority of the building is kitchen-related and nearly all food served in the residence halls passes through this complex.
On the outside, the Central Kitchen looks like a nondescript warehouse, but the rear delivery dock serves as the first portal to the meticulously organized operation. Three doors segregate all incoming and outgoing items: One door is exclusively for incoming dirty dishes; one is for incoming food products; one is the exit for all cooked food and clean dishes. The separation ensures that clean and dirty dishes will never cross paths, reducing the chance for cross-contamination.
Food preservation and safety is closely monitored in every part of the Central Kitchen. The crew finished unloading the contents of a $25,000 delivery that arrived on Sept. 20, loading much of the contents directly into the walk-in deep freezer set to a constant temperature of -9 degrees Fahrenheit.
The rest of the delivery was placed into either the “thaw cooler” or “cooler,” two walk-in refrigerators adjacent to the freezer. This level of intricate organization ensures that food is always where it needs to be located and is safely stored.
This level of high-quality food has not always existed at UO.
“Students spoke with their feet,” Driscoll said about the major overhaul of the food system he helped initiate in 2000. When he began working at UO, dining halls offered buffet style food for every meal, similar to Carson’s buffet today. Driscoll and the food services staff went on to replace most of the buffets with restaurant-style catering.
Each section of the Central Kitchen contributes to a larger operation similar to other manufacturing facilities. For instance, the bakery prepares almost 30,000 items daily while an assembly line of workers fills tabletops with sandwiches. Elsewhere in the kitchen, one worker was hand-mixing macaroni and cheese while “skillet row” fired up its gas grills to sear chicken breasts.
“Most places have one [skillet], few have three,” Smith said. “It’s uber efficient.”
While further cooking occurs in each campus restaurant, the Central Kitchen allows a large portion of goods to arrive in a simple-to-complete state. This keeps wait times low and on-site preparation to a minimum.
Despite increased preservation technology, not all food purchased for the residence halls is able to be consumed. In 2000, Driscoll arranged an agreement with Food for Lane County to take leftover food from each kitchen six days a week. The food is then distributed to families in need.
Freshman Chase Prosser, a romance languages major from Salem, said one of his favorite meals is the macaroni and cheese, but said that the portions are large.
“I don’t have a complaint at all, but if you could choose to have a smaller size, that would be good,” Prosser said. “I know there’s some people who don’t want all of this food, and they’d hate for it to go to waste.”
Most students seem to enjoy the food, and some would even prefer it to home cooking.
“It’s better than the food I usually have back home,” freshman Slade Chiakowsky said while finishing a breakfast burrito from GSH. “I actually really like it here. I would rather have this than food from home.”
Director of Marketing and Communications for University Housing Leah Andrews laughed when recalling her college meals, her favorite of which was a panini-pressed peanut butter and honey sandwich. College dorm food seems to have evolved over the years, and the attention to individual needs has significantly improved at UO.
When a student needs personalized accommodations, Driscoll offers to create customized dietary plans with students who may need special assistance.
“The way that we deal with allergies, I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Andrews said.
All UO food locations have the ability to accommodate gluten intolerance and have rigorous standards for ensuring no gluten can possibly be mixed in. Separate water and pots are used for boiling pasta, chefs wear new gloves when handling gluten free bread, and last year Barnhart purchased a waffle iron used specifically for gluten free waffles.
“I had a mom break into tears once when we went on a tour because her daughter had Celiac’s disease and they had been working so hard to keep their daughter healthy,” Andrews said. ”One of the biggest fears for this family was the health of their student when she went to school. So because of what we do, she can focus on her classes.”
All of this comes at a cost. For incoming freshmen in 2016, a standard double room and meal plan is expected to cost $11,897 for a full academic year.
“People have an expectation for quality,” Driscoll said. “It’s not free. There’s a cost involved, so people have to think about the cost versus the quality.”
As UO continues to evolve its food services and practices, the cost will likely continue to increase, but so will the quality.
“We’re responsible for the well-being of a lot of people,” Smith said. “I’m proud to put my name on this stuff. That’s hard to say in some of these industries today.”