Ranking Michigan’s top 10 colleges by their food

Ranking Michigan’s top 10 colleges by their food

Photo courtesy of ORION PRODUCTION via Shutterstock

By Lisa Green

January 24, 2024

From dietary-conscious dining to sustainability initiatives, here are Michigan’s best college campuses for superior food options.

MICHIGAN—Between the Spartan Green and the Go Blue, Michigan has a lot of great college towns. But we think it’s time to focus on food.

When choosing a college, many prospective students focus on program availability and tuition, but they should probably focus more on food options and what they’ll be eating every day. Eating on campus is not only a primary factor in socializing and community integration, but a significant factor in the college experience.

It’s also a significant factor in college expenses. According to US News, a meal plan for one academic year can range from $3,000-$5,500, or reach as much as $9,000. Depending on the college, students living on campus may be required to purchase a meal plan.

With mindful attention to a campus meal plan, students and their families can save money. That’s a big deal in Michigan—up until the past month, food prices across America were rising faster than overall inflation, with restaurant and take-out food prices rising at three times the pace of grocery store prices. How much a student eats in the dining hall, how much they need grab-and-go options, and how much they eat off campus will be a deciding factor in the best college choice for them.

We’ve rounded up our top ten list of colleges and college towns with the best dining options both on and off campus.

10. University of Michigan-Flint (Flint)

Meal Plan Rate: $1,686.50 per semester

Student Population: 6,418

University Type: Public University

The University of Michigan-Flint (UMF) and its campus dining really hit a new stride post-COVID. Niche.com graded UMF food with a B, ranking it No. 598 on the list of Best College Food in America.

In 2023, UMF renovated the Harding Mott University Center, also called UCEN, including the campus cafeteria, Picasso @ UCEN. This complemented the renovation and reimagining of Clint’s Cafe, another eatery, in 2022. Renovating both resulted in more food options, more gathering space for students, and an overall focus on becoming a micro-restaurant eatery.

UMF is also in the heart of Flint’s downtown, meaning there are plenty of off-campus dining options available. Some popular choices include Blackstone’s Smokehouse, Xolo, and Sauce Italian American Kitchen

9. Grand Valley State University (Allendale)

Meal Plan Rates: $200-$2,100 per semester

Student Population: 24,406

University Type: Public University

Nestled into a western suburb of Grand Rapids, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) has a lot going for it. Niche.com graded GVSU’s food as a B+ grade and No. 421 on the list of Best College Food in America.

At GVSU, students encounter name brands they know and love like Starbucks, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Subway, Panda Express, and Jet’s Pizza. One of Grand Valley’s biggest boasts is the affordability of its meal plan. The college reports that they charge over $800 less per semester than the average meal plan in Michigan.

GVSU’s dining program is also committed to special diets like vegetarian, vegan, whole grains, plant-based, and nutritionally dense foods. Students may also schedule a free consultation with a registered dietitian to ensure their meals meet their nutritional needs.

Additionally, GVSU is Green Restaurant Certified for its effort in waste management and sustainability. Their restaurants use fair trade products, compostable disposable-ware, and composted food waste.

Although GVSU is only a stone’s throw from Allendale’s restaurants, the town does not have a wide variety of options, limiting the nearby off-campus dining compared to other entries on this list.

8. Davenport University (Grand Rapids)

Meal Plan Rates: $93-$2,716 per semester

Student Population: 7,232

University Type: Private University

Davenport University is a private university focusing on career-focused degree programs. Niche.com graded Davenport University’s food an A- and ranked it No. 204 on the list of Best College Food in America.

Davenport University’s South Dining Hall is one of the focal points of their dining options. The hall’s menu changes weekly, with seven different stations featuring a variety of different culinary options. It also features The Zone, a special area for students with food allergies. Here, students can find dairy-free yogurt, gluten-free bread, and vegan dressings. Another dining option is The HUB, which features a coffee bar offering 25 different beverages.

Although Davenport University is located on the southern outskirts of Grand Rapids, the city itself is a foodie destination. Students are only minutes away from famous institutions like Beltline Bar, home of the wet burrito. There’s no shortage of other delicious options within a short driving distance.

7. Andrews University (Berrien Springs)

Meal Plan Rates: $50-$1,750 per semester

Student Population: 3,366

University Type: Private University

Andrews University is founded by Seventh-Day Adventists, but the college is open to students of any religion. The private university is also known for its impressive food options, especially among similar Christian-based private colleges in Michigan. Niche.com gave Andrews University’s food an A- grade and ranked it No. 177 on the list of Best College Food in America.

The dining program at Andrews University is faith-based, abstaining from caffeine entirely and focusing on plant-based foods. The fresh and from-scratch offerings allow Andrews University’s food court to serve delicious offerings like a salad bar, panini station, stir fry station, and more. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free offerings are emphasized for a healthier lifestyle.

Off campus, the town of Berrien Springs is a little small, but it has a couple good restaurants. It is also only a short distance away from the Michigan beachtown culinary favorites in Benton Harbor.

6. Saginaw Valley State University (Bay Region)

Meal Plan Rates: $250-$2,235 per semester

Student Population: 8,535

University Type: Public University

Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) is the newest of Michigan’s public colleges and universities, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the school is forward-thinking about food. Niche.com gave Saginaw Valley State University’s food an A grade and ranked it No. 71 on the list of Best College Food in America.

SVSU uses an online menu meal calculator, which tracks nutrition information, reports ingredients, and easily identifies recipes that are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, low carbon footprint, and more. The SVSU dining services have several easily recognizable brands like Panda Express, Papa John’s, Subway, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and Starbucks. The dining team is also available to find best solutions for allergies and special dietary needs.

Several eco-friendly initiatives on campus help to reduce food waste. Some food items are labeled as “Plant Forward” or low-carbon-emission foods. SVSU uses compostable and recyclable packaging in some locations and uses old coffee grounds from Starbucks in the on-campus greenhouse and per request for guest composting needs.

Though not technically located within an urban or suburban center, SVSU is an equal distance from both Bay City and Saginaw, allowing for plenty of off-campus dining options to the north and south. There’s a variety of fast food, chains, and local restaurants to choose from within a short driving distance.

5. Ferris State University (Big Rapids)

Meal Plan Rates: $233-$2,893 per semester

Student Population: 10,361

University Type: Public University

Ferris State University may be more Up North and less college town, but it has healthy, varied dining options for students, all available at many different hours in the day. Niche.com graded Ferris State University’s food with an A, ranking it No. 66 on the list of Best College Food in America.

Ferris State’s Rock Cafe and Quad Cafe feature made-to-order food preparation that is allergen-conscious. Menus easily identify vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free offerings, as well as eight common allergens. Items rotate throughout the week, leaving plenty of variety so students don’t get bored. There are also plenty of to-go meals from several restaurants accepting meal swipes.

The Ferris State community is also diligent about addressing food insecurity, communicating free food resources, community meals, and food deals across campus.

Ferris State’s campus is located within walking distance of several other restaurants in Big Rapids, especially popular chains. There are several off-campus spots to grab food.

4. Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo)

Meal Plan Rates: $272-$2,866.50 per semester

Student Population: 16,643

University Type: Public Research University

Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo features dining centers and cafes, with a special focus on special diets. Niche.com graded WMU’s food as an A- and ranked it No. 165 on the list of Best College Food in America.

As of 2023, WMU opened a new student center with new dining options, all designed with inclusivity in mind, including Hand Picked, which offers gluten-free bread alternatives. Another addition includes more global-inspired culinary options. WMU is also one of the few campuses that includes halal offerings in its dining options.

WMU is also only a short distance from downtown Kalamazoo, which provides a diverse and vibrant restaurant scene. Restaurants like Crow’s Nest, Old Goat Tavern, and Bilbo’s Pizza are beloved by the Broncos.

3. Wayne State University (Detroit)

Meal Plan Rates: $129-$2,300 per semester

Student Population: 24,931

University Type: Public Research University

An urban university with a wealth of dining options, Wayne State University is thriving in the heart of Detroit’s Midtown, also called the Cass Corridor. Niche.com graded Wayne State’s food with an A-, ranking it No. 271 on the list of Best College Food in America.

Wayne State’s dining program recently rebranded to 313 Dining Co., rolling out a complete rehaul of its culinary offerings. One change is how Wayne State tracks meals for diets that are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and plant-based. They also certify low-carbon offerings. Students requested sugar-free, low-sugar, and halal offerings, which were included in the menu changes. There’s even an allergen-free “Stress Less Station” for students with dietary restrictions.

The food hall partners with local businesses within the Detroit community to bring locally sourced ingredients and recipes to Wayne State. There’s also plenty of brands that students will recognize like Starbucks, Subway, Panda Express, and Taco Bell.

For off-campus dining, Wayne State is surrounded by plenty of great culinary options that are truly Detroit-made, like Pie Sci Pizza, Honest John’s, and Detroit Shipping Company.

2. Michigan State University (East Lansing)

Meal Plan Rates: $9 per meal or $3,750 per semester

Student Population: 51,316

University Type: Public Land-Grant Research University

The Spartans at Michigan State University (MSU) don’t just play great football, they also have some pretty awesome food programs worth admiring. Niche.com graded Michigan State’s food as an A and ranked it No. 96 on the list of Best College Food in America.

Michigan State students can choose between seven full-service dining halls and over 30 different markets, cafes, and eateries. Their innovative MSUtrition system allows students and guests to examine detailed ingredients and filter food offerings by food allergies and dietary needs. A registered dietician is also on staff to provide personalized dietary support.

MSU has a longstanding commitment to long-term sustainability, with locally sourced ingredients and efforts toward water conservation and waste-reduction. MSU creates some food products right on campus, with the MSU Dairy Store, MSU Meat Lab, MSU Bakers, and two farms. Their devotion to waste reduction can be clearly seen through MSU’s tradition of trayless dining in the dining halls, which cuts down on food waste and conserves water.

Off campus, Spartans have a number of trademark hangouts within walking distance that they’re likely to remember long after they graduate. Institutions such as Crunchy’s, The Peanut Barrel, and Beggar’s Banquet will tantalize your taste buds and stick in your memory.

1. University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)

Meal Plan Rates: $686-$2,995 per semester

Student Population: 52,065

University Type: Public Research University

The University of Michigan (UM) and Ann Arbor take the top spot for food options, thanks to the UM’s extensive dining program. Niche.com graded UM’s food an A and ranked it No. 57 on the list of Best College Food in America.

UM students can choose between a total of seven full-service residential dining halls as well as 22 on-campus eateries and markets. They are also committed to nutritious offerings, accommodating vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets. Each dining hall serves a menu option that excludes the nine most-common allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean/shellfish, wheat, soy, and sesame). The MyNutrition program allows students to pre-screen menu items for possible allergens. Registered dietitians are also available for students who would like assistance with their dietary choices.

While this campus might be the place to “Go Blue,” UM also has a tendency to go green. It has committed to offering 55% of its menu as plant-based offerings by 2025. Michigan Dining incorporates a wide variety of sustainability initiatives, including compostable containers, food reduction practices, locally sourced ingredients, and informed practices about carbon footprints.

University of Michigan is also located in the heart of Ann Arbor, known for its wide variety of diverse culinary options. From Spanish tapas to Koren barbecue to Middle Eastern fare, Ann Arbor restaurants cater to a cornucopia of ethnic cuisines and plant-based options.

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