Students choose from a selection of entrees at the Yeh College-New College West dining hall in early February. The shared servery, located in Grousbeck Hall, opened in 2022.
Photo: Sameer A. Khan h’21 / Fotobuddy
As the University serves 1.4 million meals, choices are growing, but some initiatives haven’t returned

The Yeh College-New College West Dining Hall opened in September 2022 with 500 seats to accommodate Princeton’s growing student body. The food choices are equally expansive. In the servery, University members can select from a dizzying display of options: to the right, an East Asian bar with Kung Pao meats and seafood, Korean barbeque, and daily dumplings. Straight ahead, a grille area known for its onion rings and steakhouse fries. There’s a salad and panini station, a fruit bar, and an assortment of breads that rivals the old Panera on Nassau Street. 

At Princeton, these diverse offerings are part of a Campus Dining evolution that has tracked with the shift from a pre- to post-pandemic world. 

“My first year, there was no oat milk in the dining hall,” said Ph.D. candidate Emily Miller, who lived in Forbes College as a resident graduate student from fall 2018 to spring 2023. Now “you see almond milk and oat milk and chocolate almond milk,” she said. Robyn Howard, who came to Princeton in 2008 and serves as the college program administrator at Butler, enjoys new vegan fare such as the Impossible Burger, pulled mushrooms, and customizable stir fry in the Whitman-Butler servery.

The scope of food output is also increasing. In the 2022-23 academic year, dining staff served 1.4 million meals across Princeton’s seven residential dining halls, the Food Gallery at Frist, the Center for Jewish Life, and the Graduate College. According to Lauren Belinsky, the assistant director of marketing and communications for Campus Dining, the number of meals served by Frist increased by 27% this past semester, mostly due to a flexible new policy that extends lunch hours to span from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

But the time warp of the pandemic has also coincided with a loss of some traditions and administrative engagement. Since Miller lives off campus now, she uses her six free meal swipes per semester judiciously, like most of her friends. Not receiving information about special events has meant rarely visiting the Graduate College for dinner. “I think the priorities have shifted,” she said, “to more about the actual food.”

Magdely Diaz de Leon ’24, a senior from Guatemala, said she’s noticed a pivot toward food samplings, such as Cuban or Indian flavors, instead of monthly meals devoted to a cultural theme. When she visited the Graduate College during Latino Heritage Month, she was surprised to find a week-long rotation of Latin American cuisine. “It was weird that they didn’t have that at the undergrad dining halls,” she said. She mentioned wellness pop-ups that have displaced larger-scale programming — these expose her to “unique appetizer-like foods,” and can be more convenient for students on the run. Dark chocolate made with local cranberries, vegan rice pudding, sumac, and apple taco tastings punctuate the Campus Dining Instagram, a photo archive of Princeton’s foods from 2013 to present.

With the logistical maze of a global health crisis, institutional knowledge can easily fade amid staff turnover. Anne Cheng ’85, professor of English and American studies, used to teach the course Literature, Food and the American Racial Diet, involving a cooking competition and critical paper response. Her classes worked closely with Campus Dining chefs — creating intergenerational partnerships that are enriching, she said, for students, faculty, and staff.

“You think of food as something you ingest as an interface between you, and the larger social world,” said Cheng, who hopes teaching kitchens and cooking events will return to Princeton. In 2018, she collaborated with the Campus Dining Food and Agricultural Initiative to host a culinary lab on risk and privilege in food systems. In 2019, she served as a judge for the fourth annual Tiger Chef Challenge, a gourmet culinary competition between the residential colleges, accompanied by a Campus Dining food expo. The challenge, last scheduled for March 2020, was postponed because of the campus shutdown and hasn’t been reinstated.

Cheng attributed her involvement with dining to Smitha Haneef, the assistant vice president for university services through April 2021. “Smitha was very committed to incorporating and integrating Princeton dining into curriculum, and student life and faculty research,” Cheng said. “She was a person who sought me out. … I lost that connection.”

Staffing changes have also included a drop in the number of student dining workers from 200 pre-pandemic to 15-20 today. Belinsky said the pandemic and “adjustments to the financial aid package” may have contributed. The University hired more temporary and full-time workers in spring 2021, and virtual jobs became popular among students opting for higher paying, less physically taxing roles, according to students who spoke with PAW. 

“In 2019, 2018, it was really common to have worked in the dining halls for at least a semester in your Princeton career,” said Laura Robertson ’24 (previously ’23), a student coordinator in the Rockefeller-Mathey dining hall. Alumnus Conor Wilson ’21 told PAW that when he worked in Forbes as a sophomore, he managed up to 14 students across two shifts per meal, with 25 students on the payroll. Today, Robinson works alongside one or two students who integrate with professional staff, floating between miscellaneous tasks as needed. 

For students far from home, the professional workers can foster another shared identity. Diaz de Leon has personal ties with Whitman cook staff, many of whom grew up in her parents’ neighborhood in Salcajá, Quetzaltenango. “They will give me specific Guatemalan things that they have in the back, like chile, like chimol,” she said. On Feb. 8, they handmade 1,000 empanadas in tandem with a campus-wide family dinner, featuring recipes from the home countries of dining staff. 

The University has reinvigorated community by hosting these events in its dining spaces — centers of not only food and tables to eat, but social relations. Boxed meals during Princeton’s hybrid semester limited services to staples like salads and rice, repetitive vegan entrées, and bread slices individually wrapped in plastic. When dining halls reopened, Diaz de Leon said she placed more emphasis on making plans to share meals with friends. “We were deprived of it for so long,” she said. “Eating by myself wasn’t as calming.”