At Rochester Polytechnic Institute the dining space The Spoon was reinvented into Spoon Around the World after the introduction of sushi led to the sale of 400 rolls daily. At New York University’s Kimmel Center, the Halal Marketplace is just that, a section of dining hall that serves only halal meats prepared according to Muslim law. And the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign’s Ikenberry Dining Center, the largest nonmilitary dining hall in the United States, is serving whole, fried Asian carp.
There were nearly 1.1 million international college students in the United States during the 2016-17 school year, up 3.4% from the previous year, and more than half of those came from China (350,755) or India (186,267). Foremost among the considerations driving a student to study abroad are academics and future career opportunities, but a growing body of evidence also shows that upon arriving at the institution of choice, cultural and lifestyle factors are an important variable in determining overall satisfaction. Most important are accommodations and food, and it is food that goes beyond the functional and moves to the emotional. Moving to a new country, it’s inevitable that one of the first to notice is the food.
“Food from the students’ home country can provide a sense of comfort since each culture and country is characterized by their own foods, particularly when the student is missing home and struggling with homesickness,” researchers Georgia Taylor and Nadia Ali wrote in the journal Education Sciences last year.
Food service divisions within unions and on campuses have taken this message to heart, and at schools with some of the highest international student populations, steps are being taken to ensure that these students don’t face dietary challenges. Research shows that such challenges can lead to undesirable health outcomes like weight gain, increased blood sugar levels, and mental health problems.
New York University has an international student population of more than 30%, and at both Illinois and Rochester it’s well over 20%. All three exemplify efforts to meet the needs of international students but in a way that their resident populations might also benefit. A leader among these is the campus at Urbana-Champaign, where student affairs staff, including food services, travel to Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, to familiarize themselves with cookery like how to fry that whole Asian carp.
“We started making changes in 2011 and now we send a team over to China annually, including to work in their kitchens,” said Dawn Aubrey, associate director of university housing for dining services. “Through connecting with our international students, we’ve been able to identify what their expectations are and even what their preferred products are.”
That Asian carp, is actually an invasive species in the Illinois River that has been damaging the habitat of indigenous fish. The university is purchasing locally caught fish and steaming or frying it whole, making fish cakes out of it, or smoking it for use as a dip. By the pound, it’s cheaper than frozen tilapia, more nutritious, and benefits the local economy.
But the creativity doesn’t stop there. Illinois has an Animal Sciences Department with a meat sales room open to the public. It’s there that food services staff obtain the key ingredient for a Chinese classic, steamed bao buns stuffed with pork belly, which in this case is raised at the university. Aubrey said another favorite for both international and U.S. students has been bibimbap, a Korean rice bowl topped with vegetables, an egg, and other proteins, and then doused with Gochujang sauce, a sweet and savory fermented chili paste condiment that is also made in house.
“The classic bibimbap is a vegetarian dish, so our vegan and vegetarian students love it as well,” she noted. Other regular international offerings include bulgogi, a marinated and barbecued thin-sliced meat, fresh nigiri sushi, fresh roti, naan flatbreads that are a standard fare in India, and African peanut soup.
At the Illini Union, vending operations coordinator Lori Holmes underscores the importance of partnering with the international student population to meet their dietary needs. The rice varieties have changed, kimchi is made on site, and the university gardens are producing bok choy and Asian squash to patrons’ delight.
“We want to bring new items and international authenticity to our programs, and today’s students are more adventurous than ever before. They are anxious to try new flavors, spices, and textures,” she said. “Food has become this generation’s cultural bridge. Through food, our students are able to identify commonalities and engage in conversations that share global experiences in a positive and meaningful way.”
Surveying For Successful Dining Opportunities
Ask these questions as to what a union or campus is doing to meet the dietary habits of international students:
- Are you conducting consistent surveying or polling with international students about their dietary needs and options?
- Have you worked with your food service units or contractors to offer dietary options for international students, such as halal foods for Muslim students?
- What about connecting food service units with local farmers’ markets to supply fresh ethnic products on a fixed schedule?
- Are you providing information to international students about ethnic food stores in the area and including those stores in retail markets and special events?
- Can you offer flexible meal plans that allow for spending options at local grocers?
- Are you facilitating or providing information about shuttle services and public transportation to international food options like markets and restaurants?