My four years at Davidson College in North Carolina centered around food. But not the school’s cafeteria food, which was standard mess hall fare. My best college food memories were in the kitchen with my roommates, preparing Penang tofu curries and rolling sushi for potlucks together.

I graduated in 2002. In the last decade, Davidson, like many other liberal arts colleges, has come a long way toward locavorism. When I was in school, an upperclassman who tilled vacant campus land for a garden was thought of as “out to lunch.” Now, my alma mater boasts a farm that grows produce for the school’s cafeteria, an artisan baking club, a student-run restaurant and apiaries that are tended by undergrads in the Bee Club.

Come Parents Weekend when I was in college, we relished the escape from the daily dining hall grind, the chance to get off campus for some good food – and on our parents’ dime. But at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where my husband works, it’s a very different story.

Students love to eat in the dining halls, which often vie for first place in The Princeton Review’s annual roundup of the best college food in America. And over Family Weekend, which this year coincided with Halloween and a snowstorm, the cafeterias’ numbers increase significantly.

Last weekend, fliers asked Bowdoin parents to enter their “recipes to cure homesickness” contest. Winning family recipes for mom’s minestrone or maple-mustard glazed salmon are prepared at an annual Just Like Home comfort-food feast in February. Some family recipes, such as Mrs. Yormak’s Chicken submitted in 2003, become popular dishes that Bowdoin has added to the regular rotation.

At the Welcome Back Lobster Bake each September, Bowdoin roasts 1,800 seaweed-wrapped lobsters over an open-fire (or students can choose steak, chicken or a vegetarian option). My 3-year-old, Theo, was smuggled into such an event, eating off the plate of his beloved babysitter, Nicole Smith, who is a junior. “Cole” often takes Theo to eat at a Bowdoin cafeteria, where he has learned to love Maine mussels (of all things) and, of course, soft serve ice cream – but the latter only if he eats enough chickpeas, kidney beans and cucumbers beforehand. These occasional dining hall meals, courtesy of Nicole, are how his parents squeeze in a rare midweek date.

We also eat together as a family at Bowdoin about once a week, perhaps even more frequently this summer, when I didn’t feel like cooking and cavernous Thorne Hall crowds dwindled to as few as 13 diners. We ate our fill of inventive salads using peak-season produce from the Bowdoin Organic Garden, which grows $25,000-plus worth of crops for the college and donates any surplus to the local food pantry.

A major perk of working at Bowdoin: All-you-can-eat dinner is a reduced $9.35 for card-carrying staff members (compared to $15.40 for anyone paying cash), and kids under age 5 eat free.

Vegetables are central to the Bowdoin dining experience: An abundant salad bar is the first station that greets diners in the school’s two cafeterias. Bowdoin debuted salad bars around 1988. At first, they grew slowly and steadily; later, the growth was exponential. “Without a doubt, vegetable consumption is up, and increasing every year,” says Dining Services associate director Ken Cardone, with the college since 1989. “Look at the variety of vegetables we offer. Brussels sprouts would never top the list – you could’ve fed 500 people 10 pounds – and now it’s one of our most popular vegetables, roasted and steamed with a pinch of nutmeg. Same thing with kale. You roast up cauliflower, and everyone takes it.”

The indefatigable, spirited and wiry director of dining Mary Lou Kennedy joined the college in 1986. She and Cardone complete each other’s sentences like a comfortable married couple, navigating delicious progress together through the decades – and probably see each other more than their actual spouses during the busy academic year.

Kennedy believes “you eat with your eyes” and puts a premium on attractive, colorful vegetable dish placement. At a recent registered dietitians conference, she felt encouraged by a study showing that if college students think their peers are eating healthier, they’ll start to do the same.

Sautéed spinach and green beans are now the first things students confront in the hot meal lines. Bowdoin made this change after Jimin Sung, a student of my husband’s who graduated last year, devised a behavioral economics experiment for his honors thesis to observe whether students could be nudged to consume more vegetables. His idea was that if the students encountered the vegetables first, with an empty plate rather than one already piled high with chicken nuggets and fries, they’d take more vegetables.

Sung also got Bowdoin to post information on the environmental impact of individual dishes. Would students consume less meat and more vegetables if reminded of the carbon footprints of these foods, he wondered?

With Bowdoin’s many choices, environmentally minded freshman Claire Day concedes she indulges in more meat here than when at home with her family in Chapel Hill, N.C. “Here it’s available every single meal, so I’m probably eating a lot more,” Day said with a twinge of guilt; she comes from a family that shops at a food co-op and farmers markets, and builds vegetable-centric meals around their CSA farm share.

Still, Day eats salads every day for lunch and dinner, and she occasionally Instagrams photos of memorable Bowdoin meals: “a delicious and unpronounceable chicken dish, spicy watermelon and tomato salad, green salad with homemade tamari dressing, the best cauliflower soup ever, and homemade bread.”

Bowdoin grinds its own hamburger meat from local Maine beef in a gleaming new meat-cutting facility, just hours before cooking it. Buying local makes it easy to trace the source of any potential problems with meat or any items, Kennedy says, adding that more than 30 percent of the school’s food purchases are local.

On a recent field trip to Crystal Spring Farm, Day and the 75 other Bowdoin students in her history-biology interdisciplinary intro to environmental studies class observed firsthand what it takes to raise Maine vegetables and meat. Beyond seeing the farm, the students could see themselves in farmer Seth Kroeck, 43: He’s a liberal arts grad who studied art history and printmaking at the University of Redlands in California (where the dining halls, he said, served lousy Marriott-catered food). Now he’s got a 50-year lease on a large organic farm.

“That’s a tractor with a college graduate on it,” Bowdoin emeritus biochemistry professor Tom Settlemire reminded the students. Settlemire himself secured the land for Crystal Spring and for decades bred and raised the Katahdin sheep that now live on the property. For many liberal arts grads now turning to farming – like Six River Farm’s Maina Handmaker, a 2011 Bowdoin grad who is spearheading an effort to create a year-round home for the Brunswick Farmers’ Market – their journey back to the land begins with the fork, over lingering questions posed around the convivial, increasingly locally sourced meals in Bowdoin’s cafeterias.

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