Earlier this year, college ranking website Niche.com released its annual list of the best U.S. college dining programs. Somewhat hidden in its best schools list was a different sort of ranking: the top dining program in each state, based on meal plan costs and student reviews. Here, we dive into those 50 standouts—and share some insight into what sets their dining programs apart.
Alabama: Auburn University
The campus dining program at Auburn University in Auburn has a strong farm-to-table program through its partnership with Auburn Foods, an organization that promotes local sourcing and sustainability. The campus boasts 10 food trucks, dishing out everything from barbecue to donuts. In May, Aramark became the university’s foodservice contractor for dining services and athletic concessions, and construction crews renovated the six convenience stores on campus over the summer, transforming them into hip destinations.
Texas: Rice University
Rice University in Houston offers dining options that hit on all the hot trends: plant-based eating, authentic global cuisine, Southern comfort food and artisan grab-and-go. Daily menus are posted on the website, so students can figure out their lunch destination early in the day, whether it be a Korean beef taco at 4.Tac0 or authentic Chinese noodles at Ambassador. Each menu is color-coded for allergens, and education about Rice’s sustainability efforts, including its trending hashtag #ourplantbasedjourney, is ongoing.
Louisiana: Southeastern Louisiana University
Through its website Campus Dish, Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond lists all dining options and fosters student interaction via a social wall with an Instagram feed that updates daily with food photos, action shots, live cooking and more. In addition to varied dining hall options, popular branded concepts include Chick-fil-A, Mooyah Burgers, Fries and Shakes and Panda Express.
Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma
University of Oklahoma in Norman offers more than 30 dining destinations around campus, including restaurants, food trucks and other venues. Although some of the concepts are well-known chains, including the country’s only all-you-care-to-eat Chick-fil-A, most are unique to OU. New this year are Acre Provisions with a “modern farmhouse” theme, focusing on health and local sourcing, and Basic Knead, featuring pizzas, pastas and housemade baked goods. First Street Eats, which accepts students’ meal plans, is the strip where local food trucks park.
New Mexico: New Mexico State University
Students at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces can choose from a mix of locally owned restaurants and national brands as well as three convenience stores. Concepts such as Tres Habaneros, Taos Restaurant and Gila Grill reflect the college’s Southwestern locale, but other destinations are themed around student favorites such as sushi, smoothies and barbecue. Globally themed eateries are also on hand, including Mix Pacific Rim.
Arkansas: Hendrix College
Hendrix College, a small liberal arts school in Conway, offers an enviable dining program for its size. The college has been nationally recognized for its food by the Princeton Review and Best Value Schools in several annual rankings. The dining program stands out for its customizable stations, including a DIY stir-fry station and bountiful salad bar. Creative plant-based meals are spotlighted on Meatless Mondays, but students have access to vegan options at every meal.
Mississippi: Mississippi State University
Creating a restaurant experience is the goal of the program at Mississippi State University in Starkville, with its newest dining hall a prime example. The Fresh Food Company offers 11 different stations of display-style cooking, including sauteed entrees, Mongolian stir-fry and made-to-order grilled items. MSU Dining also offers daily $5 Blue Plate specials at Pegasus in the Wise Center and three new stations at The Marketplace at Perry, providing vegan, gluten-free and allergen-free options. In addition to its residential dining halls, the school boasts several convenience stores and branded chains.
Florida: Florida International University
Made up of 31 different restaurants across two campuses, the dining program at Florida International University in Miami offers students a mix of local and national chains as well as cafes, a kosher food truck, retail outlets and an all-you-care-to-eat dining facility. The school’s foodservice vendor switched to Chartwells this year.
Georgia: University of Georgia
All of the food waste produced in the five dining commons at the University of Georgia in Athens is composted and used by other campus groups. The dining team recently started a to-go meal program using reusable containers, and it also rolled out an app called Food Finder, which lets users know when and where certain menu items are being served on campus and spotlights upcoming special events, new menu items and more.
North Carolina: High Point University
High Point University in High Point has taken on several sustainability initiatives such as fryer oil recycling, trayless dining, a reusable mug program and more. The dining team also hosts various events and programs throughout the year, including a food truck takeover and cooking classes at the school’s teaching kitchen.
South Carolina: University of South Carolina
Dining locations at the University of South Carolina in Columbia include traditional dining halls as well as a restaurant. The dining team just renovated its Russell House dining facility, which now offers a barbecue-themed eatery as well as retail locations such as Chick-fil-A and Pei Wei.
Tennessee: Vanderbilt University
A variety of dining changes came to Vanderbilt University this fall, including the expansion of its compost program and the introduction of new plant-based options for students (new items include a sweet potato-jalapeno casserole and grilled barbecue-spiced cauliflower steak). In a sustainability move, the Nashville university is also in the process of phasing out plastic straws, cold cup lids and plastic bags.
Kentucky: Sullivan University
Sullivan University in Louisville was also named the top dining program in Kentucky by Niche last year. Students can dine either at the school’s dining facility at Gardiner Point Residence Hall or at its A La Carte Cafe. An interview with the school’s food and beverages director last year revealed that many of its dining staff are graduates of Sullivan’s culinary program.
Virginia: Virginia Tech
The Blacksburg school, which Niche named the top dining program in the country, is famous for various dining events, including its Chicken Parmesan Day, held on certain Wednesdays and Fridays at its Owens Food Court, and its monthly Buffet with the Blue, during which students share a meal with campus police.
Maryland: St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Located in St. Mary’s City, many menu items served at St. Mary’s are either vegetarian or vegan, including its Tofu and Bell Pepper Scramble and Tacos Non Carne. Great Room, the main eatery on campus, provides continuous meal service from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m., and students looking for late-night offerings can visit The Pub, which serves food until 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday and until midnight during the rest of the week.
New York: St. John Fisher College
St. John Fisher College in Rochester moved up two spots from last year’s Niche dining ranking for the state of New York, jumping from third to first place. At the school’s Ward-Haffey Dining Hall, students can choose from several interactive dining stations, including the Hikari Saute Station, which serves dishes such as chicken curry satay and dim sum.
New Jersey: Princeton University
Princeton’s eight dining halls and nine cafes offer students an array of dishes made with local ingredients. The Princeton-based school also has an in-house bakery that produces desserts for campus dining halls and retail concepts as well as catered events.
Pennsylvania: Gettysburg College
The dining team at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg donates any preconsumer leftovers to the school’s food rescue program. Foodservice also places an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. In the summer of 2012, the dining team began sourcing honey from the school’s on-campus honey farm.
Maine: Bates College
Students can leave feedback about Bates’ dining services through its virtual napkin board. Throughout the year, the dining team at the Lewiston school hosts multiple Adventures in Dining events, which include special menu items, such as a carnitas bar, available for one night only.
Connecticut: Wesleyan University
The dining program at Wesleyan University in Middletown offers a variety of dishes that meet dietary needs. Students can grab kosher dishes seven days a week from the school’s dedicated kosher concept, while those looking for halal meals can find them at two eateries on campus.
Vermont: Middlebury College
The Middlebury school’s dining team hosts a Recipes from Home program through which students can submit the recipe for a favorite home-cooked meal. The school’s chefs then recreate the dish and serve it on campus. Every year, almost 300 tons of food waste from campus eateries is composted for use at the school’s greenhouses, gardens and soil amendment.
Photograph courtesy of Middlebury College
Rhode Island: Roger Williams University
The main dining hall at the Bristol-based campus is split into two floors: The upper level serves all-you-care-to-eat fare such as sausage ziti and vegan macaroni and cheese, and the lower offers a variety of grab-and-go options such as sandwiches and sushi. Students can also participate in food events held throughout the year, such as a build-your-own burger bar on National Cheeseburger Day.
Delaware: University of Delaware
In addition to branded and retail options, UD Dining is home to three dining halls: Russell Residential Dining, Pencader Residential Dining and The Caesar Rodney Fresh Food Company, the latter of which is home to stations serving gluten-free, vegan or kosher options. Pencader serves up a to-go program as well as ice cream made on campus. The Newark school is introducing late-night options at its Russell dining hall this fall, including pizzas, desserts and classic items from the grill. The dining program also spotlights healthy foods on social media each week using the hashtag #WellnessWednesday.
New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire
Following the lead of a number of colleges and universities, UNH recently advanced its sustainability efforts by removing plastic straws from its foodservice program. Cafes on the Durham campus will phase out the straws, opting instead for recyclable lids that can be sipped through.
Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Amherst
UMass Amherst continues to be a force in college dining, having recently been named the No. 1 university foodservice program by the Princeton Review for the third year in a row. This past summer, the UMass dining team served a different sort of student than it’s used to when the school began offering meals to kids age 18 and under from its Baby Berk food truck.
West Virginia: Potomac State College of West Virginia University
Potomac State College in Keyser offers two dining options to hungry students: all-you-care-to-eat dining at The Commons and to-go items at The Rapids. To-go options are available every day of the week except Saturday.
Illinois: Kendall College
Students looking for something to eat at hospitality-focused Kendall can receive a 30% discount at The Dining Room, where lunch and dinners are prepared and served by students of the Chicago school’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management program. For those seeking a more casual option, student-run Cafe du Jour is open five days a week, as are the school’s The Daily Grind coffee shops.
Indiana: Purdue University
The West Lafayette school serves up a variety of on-trend eats from its Daily Bite food truck, which is currently offering several types of ramen. It’s also home to late-night concept Knight Spot, serving up sandwiches, appetizers such as popcorn chicken and milkshakes with mix-ins. The campus also boasts four markets, including Urban Market, which is promoted as an upscale c-store. Certain dining halls on campus allow students to take four items for carryout, as well as a to-go drink in a reusable cup.
Minnesota: Gustavus Adolphus College
The St. Peter school serves students from its Evelyn Young Dining Room, Courtyard Cafe, Market Place and various banquet rooms. Each Thursday, dining services hosts La Mesa, an evening event where Spanish-speaking students come together to enjoy a meal and conversation.
Kansas: Kansas State University
The Manhattan school offers its 5,000-plus students three dining centers as well as a number of c-stores, restaurants and coffee shops. Its Union Station by JP’s is the school’s first gastropub, serving up beer, wine, cocktails and a variety of food options. Students looking for some bar grub to go can order through the concept’s Fast Track counter.
North Dakota: North Dakota State University
NSDU Dining offers students eats in three dining centers and a number of retail spots. Those seeking late-night food can head over to West Dining Center, which serves woodstone-fired pizzas and is open until 11 p.m. The Fargo school’s Residence Dining Center is designated as an “allergen-sensitive” and nut-free eatery.
South Dakota: Black Hills State University
BHSU Dining Services, which is run by the A’viands contract management company, allows students to use their dining dollars at its The Hive dining hall, Buzz Shack coffee shop and an outpost of Einstein Bros. Bagels. Parents and loved ones can send care packages to BHSU students for birthdays, holidays and other occasions via the Spearfish school’s catering department.
Missouri: Washington University in St. Louis
Wash U’s foodservice program, which is managed by Bon Appetit, boasts a variety of sustainability initiatives, including its Farm to Fork program that promotes local produce and its oil recycling plan, through which the school converts used fryer oil into biofuel, which is then used to gas up campus trucks.
Nebraska: Bellevue University
Bellevue University’s dining program, which is managed by Aladdin Food Management Services, serves up traditional favorites that rotate weekly. The university’s dining website includes a button where dinners can submit a recipe they’d like to see featured on the menu. Popular menu items include chicken piccata, char sui, jerk chicken and pineapple rice. Aladdin and Bellevue have taken several steps toward creating a more sustainable foodservice operation by using cage-free shell eggs, introducing farm-to-table initiatives, incorporating a campus garden and more.
Alaska: University of Alaska Anchorage
The University of Alaska Anchorage has a slew of campus eateries, including Creekside Eatery, Bear Necessities, Borealis Brew, Cuddy Market Place, Daily Grind, Kaladi Brothers Cafe, Union Burger, Express and the Varsity Sports Grill. Creekside Eatery is the hub of residential dining, offering breakfast, lunch, dinner, late-night snacks and more. New this year, the Union Burger is the university’s take on a retro burger joint.
Hawaii: Chaminade University of Honolulu
The Chaminade University of Honolulu has a variety of dining options on campus. Meal plans include four plans for residents and three for commuter students. Dining facilities include The P.O.D. Market, where students go to enjoy meals on an open-air patio. The Silversword Cafe offers all-you-care-to-eat meals and live cooking demos.
Oregon: University of Oregon
The University of Oregon opened a new “high-tech” catering and central kitchen in 2016 that officials said would expand the food options offered on campus. The Eugene university designed the new facility, which includes a full bakery, with its chefs in mind. “We are incredibly proud of the high-quality, exceptional food our chefs create, often with local and sustainable ingredients,” said Tom Driscoll, director of dining services and associate director of housing.
California: University of California, Los Angeles
At the start of 2017, the University of California, Los Angeles opened The Study at Hedrick, which grew its daily meal swipes from around 2,000 to up to 5,000 swipes in just one year—even though the concept is located at the very edge of the campus. “It’s an effort to come to this location, and what we’re seeing is that [students] are making the effort,” said Al Ferrone, senior director of dining, in an interview with FSD in February 2018. “This particular unit has really taken off.” Students’ affinity for The Study could be due to the fact that it touches on a number of trends in college and university dining. A mixed-use space, The Study features a variety of private study and lounging areas accompanied by dining options centered on customizable dishes as well as a variety of premade to-go meals.
Colorado: Colorado College
Foodservice at Colorado College in Colorado Springs is provided by Bon Appetit. The campus has six dining locations, including Rastall Cafe, an all-you-can-eat buffet-style concept serving traditional comfort food as well as international items and vegetarian and vegan options. The Preserve is the college’s retail location, while Local Goods is its late-night eatery, open until midnight. And Colorado Coffee and Susie B’s serve as the campus coffee houses.
Nevada: University of Nevada, Las Vegas
University of Nevada, Las Vegas is run by contract management company Aramark, and its campus is home to many national brands as well as campus-branded dining locations. The Hazel M. Wilson Dining Commons is “an all-you-care-to-eat extravaganza,” according to the school’s website, and is open to faculty, staff, guests and all students. The P.O.D. DC Market combines the convenience of a corner store with the style of a modern market. It’s a convenient spot for snacks, grab-and-go items and dorm life essentials.
Montana: University of Montana
UM Dining vows to support “student success through superior cuisine, exceptional dining experiences and sustainable business practices.” The Missoula school’s dining team is fiercely entrepreneurial, and has maintained profitability as a self-operated, self-funded state auxiliary program. In 2017, UM Dining won the NACUFS Loyal E. Horton Dining Award, Gold for its Harvest retail concept and the honorable mention award for its Pizza Pi retail concept. The team also hosts a UMD Garden Dinner series, during which students have the chance to try authentically prepared cuisines crafted by UM Dining chefs.
Idaho: The College of Idaho
The dining program at the Caldwell school is run by Bon Appetit. Together, Bon Appetit and the College of Idaho are fighting food waste and hunger by recovering surplus perishable food from campus that might otherwise go to waste and donating it to the College of Idaho Food Bank. The program also offers personalized “thinking of you” packages available for order by parents and friends and delivered to students. It could be a dozen cookies, cupcakes, late-night munchies or a home-from-school-sick basket.
Arizona: Grand Canyon University
Grand Canyon University in Phoenix has four dining locations around campus: the Student Union, which has the largest selection of food options; Lopes Way, home to popular fast-food spots; GCU Arena, a spot for game-day meals; and Thunder Alley, which has a pop-up eatery and food stand. Foodservice also includes The Lope House Restaurant, which offers all-day breakfast, dessert and drinks.
Utah: Brigham Young University
Brigham Young University in Provo is home to eateries such as The Commons at the Cannon Center, Legends Grille, Cougareat Food Court, BYU Creamery, The Blue Line, MOA Cafe, The Skyroom Restaurant and Harvey’s. The university hosts a popular farmers market where students, faculty and staff, and the surrounding community can purchase fresh Utah products, baked goods, arts and crafts, and more. The university also sets up a demo booth where visitors can view cooking demonstrations and grab the recipes to try on their own.
Washington: Seattle University
Seattle University foodservice recently switched its foodservice provider to Chartwells. The university said it decided to move in that direction to enhance the student and guest experience by reducing wait times and offering enhanced services such as mobile ordering and self-checkout. Chartwells also offers a 10% discount for students, faculty and staff who use meal plans.
Wyoming: University of Wyoming
The University of Wyoming in Laramie is equipped with its own bakery, Rolling Mill Bakery. Here, pastries, breads, and other sweet and savory creations are made fresh daily, most from scratch. Rolling Mill Bakery’s signature desserts, pastries, breads and treats are featured at the Rolling Mill Cafe, located in the Wyoming Union, and also across campus in the Book & Bean, Elements and Rendezvous.