AT A GROWING NUMBER of colleges and universities, students just have to do a little tapping and swiping on their smartphones or tablets to get the day's menus, dining venue operating hours, nutritional information, even how crowded the eateries are.
“This is something students have really been asking for,” said Tom Driscoll, director of food services for University Housing at the University of Oregon when his department debuted its iNutrition application last year. “We fill requests for new menu items all the time; now we're serving up information.”
iNutrition lets students select the daypart and dining outlet, then view the dishes being served along with their nutritional content and how they fit into recommended daily allowances. It also flags food allergens like dairy, nuts and soy in each dish, identifies vegan/vegetarian options and even details which fall within certain nutritional content ranges (low in sugar, high in protein, etc.).
Yale University Dining goes a step further. Its mobile app provides real-time information on specific dining hall traffic levels along with daily menus, nutrition information and maps. Students can even use it to order late plates and sack lunches.
Like most college dining apps, OU iNutrition and Yale Dining run on Apple's iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch devices, Apple being the most popular mobile computing vendor for college age students. The programs are made available at the company's popular online “App Store” and most are free (note, though, that any apps for Apple devices must be approved by the company before being listed at App Store). Some apps also have versions for other platforms like Google's Android operating system, which runs on a number of popular smartphones.
Currently, most dining related apps were developed by the school or its dining service though in some cases students took the initiative. The WUSTL Dining application introduced last fall at Washington University of St. Louis was developed by a pair of engineering students working with the dining services and the university's IT department. The dining app at Bowdoin College was developed independently by a computer science major working on a grant.
A few were designed by external developers. One is WhatsOpen? which provides menu and operating hour information for dining venues at New York University. It also tracks cash and dining dollars balances and meal plan swipes.
WhatsOpen? costs $1.99 at the Apple App Store. More limited versions of WhatsOpen? (showing only dining hours) have been rolled out for Harvard University, the University of Rochester, the University of Michigan and Binghamton University.