IT'S just past noon at Purdue University, and students are crowding into the school's main dining hall.
They are greeted by a taco-salad line, a grill line, a hot and cold deli line, and vegetable and entree lines. A salad bar complete with fresh vegetables and sliced melon sits in the center.
The dessert section is lined with 20 different plates ranging from cheesecake with cherries to lemon-meringue pie.
On the west side of campus, students sip iced cappuccino outside a recently opened espresso bar.
Across the street, Greek, Chinese, and various fast-food restaurants are busy taking student orders. A few blocks up the street, an Italian restaurant is drawing crowds.
College food directors across the country agree that students have access to more food variety than ever before, not only in dining halls, but also in residence halls and campus-run restaurants.
Denise Bubik, who graduated from Purdue last spring, chose to stay in her dorm for all four years because the food served there was so outstanding. ``I really miss the food now that I'm out of school,'' she says.
``As a whole, college feeding has changed,'' says Ethel Smith, assistant food director at Purdue. Flexible meal plans
Many recent changes reflect the students' changing needs. For instance, Purdue and several other schools offer the choice of paying for either a 20-meals-per-week plan or a 13-meal plan, allowing for greater flexibility and alternative eating schedules.
``This was a better system because students would miss some meals because of class or other activities and still have to pay for it,'' Ms. Bubik says. ``With the new plan, they paid for only the meals they ate.''
With the '90s trend toward more healthful foods, colleges are not only offering more vegetarian meals, leaner meats like fish and poultry, and frozen yogurt, but also flyers loaded with nutrition tips.
``The college-food industry has grown a lot,'' says Patricia Bando, associate director of dining and retail services at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. ``Before, many students did not have a choice. Many colleges just had straight-line cafeterias. We have six dining rooms, and no two dining units are offering the same meal on a given night,'' she adds.
``The key to our success is variety. I think students come to college with more of an awareness about what they are eating because they travel so much now, and they expect us to provide the same quality and healthy foods.''
Ms. Bando says Cornell offers special events with a different theme every other week.
For example, the dining room may take on a country western or a Southwestern theme with food and atmosphere to match. They also offer a gourmet program, where they invite a well-known chef to recreate the ambience his or her own restaurant and oversee food preparation.
``We try to be competitive with off-campus premises,'' Bando says. ``Instead of offering the old service such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes, we try to do something different with college food by offering these events.''
At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the popularity of bottled and flavored water has exploded. ``These types of drinks seem to be much more popular than just a can of soda,'' says food director Frank Gladu. ``We can't keep them on the shelves.''
Every night there is a specialty bar at Vanderbilt's main cafeteria. The specialties include chicken, Mexican, and Italian food, and even a breakfast bar. At the chicken bar, nine different dishes are offered. But the pancakes, omelets, and other breakfast foods are much more popular.
``On the weekends, we serve breakfast until 2 p.m. because students absolutely love breakfast,'' Mr. Gladu says.
The college food directors agree that a successful food program isn't possible without feedback from students. College food association
``We base a lot of projects and programs on what our customers' wants and needs are,'' Bando says. ``We are always asking for feedback because we want to make the students happy.''
One organization that works with colleges to improve the food service is the National Association of College and University Food (NACUF).
Founded in 1958, it provides guidance to its 540 members through conferences, discussions, research, and publications. It also offers a forum for sharing and networking among its members and works to promote ``adventurous and desirable eating habits'' for college students.
NACUF also hosts one national food convention and nine regional conventions a year.
Some colleges and universities haven't joined the association, and Spina partly attributes this to limited resources.
But it's also because of ``a lack of awareness among nonmembers as to what the benefits are to joining. By networking with each other, food directors can learn a lot,'' Spina says.
The Kalamazoo (Mich.) College dining hall has just been renovated for the new school year. It now offers a self-service bar with raw vegetables and Asian dishes with a variety of flavored oils and rices - all aimed at attracting today's health-conscious eaters.
But the grill still sizzles nearby for those who prefer classic hamburgers, hot dogs, and cheese sandwiches.
Renovations have also been underway at Boston University (BU) in Boston, Mass. A new 25,000-square-foot food-service area called ``Union Court'' features a combination of franchised and brand-name foods.
In the BU dining halls, pasta dishes with assorted sauces are offered as well as an abundance of vegetarian entrees.
``The trend is definitely toward healthier meals, but I think it is about a 50-50 mix,'' says Jackie Parker, BU's director of dining services.
``Students still enjoy pizza and burgers, but if they want a healthier meal, that option is available.''