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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Meal planning
July 11, 2010 - 5:10pm

Whenever I think about feeding students on campus, a question comes into my mind. I've eaten meals on probably 100 campuses, most often in the same dining halls (or other facilities) the students use. Most of these operate on a basis of a single check-in (meal ticket, ID card swipe, give your name to the lunch lady, whatever), and then it's off the the races . . . buffet counters . . . food court. All you can eat, including as many trips as you want to make. A few operate, instead, on the basis of cash or point value, deducted from a declining balance. My impression is that commuter schools more often do the declining balance thing, while residential schools tend towards the "all you can eat" model.

I can see the logic of that correlation. Residential students present predictable demand patterns, in that they'll be eating the vast majority of their meals on campus. The management challenge, thus, becomes minimizing administrative cost and effort while pricing a semester's worth of food appropriately. Commuter students, on the other hand, eat on campus when it's convenient, eat elsewhere whenever they desire, present a demand pattern which has to be managed much more at the margins than on any average.

It's likely that commuter students, if they weren't eating on campus, would be consuming their selection from the country's wide array of the finest in fast food. That's what campus dining facilities have to compete with, and that's the model that -- since they can't beat it -- they've joined. I don't know whether commuter students tend to gain a "freshman 15" or not, but I know a lot of residential students do.

So let's concentrate on residential schools . . .

It's not just the availability of all that food, at no apparent cost. It's also the selection available. The constant access to familiar favorites and comfort foods -- each of them appropriate on an occasional basis, but most of them excessive when consumed as a regular diet. Lasagna. Pizza. French fries. Mac and cheese. Ice cream. Cake. Lots of carbs, lots of unhealthy fats, lots of salt.

When I raise the subject with the Food Services people at Greenback, I always get the same story: that's what the kids want. Which is no doubt true. But they're kids. If the legal drinking age were lower, they'd want all the beer they could drink thrown in as well; would that be a legitimate reason to build it into the meal plan? "It's what the kids want, and they complain when we don't offer it" is a cop-out. Residential students complain about campus food, regardless. On probably every residential campus I've ever been on, the quality/variety of the food is either the #1 or the #2 student complaint. And on any campus where food isn't the #1 complaint, either the institution is in deep financial trouble or the administration is screwing up real bad.

So student complaints about campus food are a given. Nobody drops out of college because they don't like the food. Kids adapt. Kids will eat just about anything. The classic student gripe is that the food is inedible and there isn't enough of it.

But what about parent complaints? I don't know of any responsible parent who sends a healthy kid off to college hoping that (s)he will gain fifteen pounds of blubber by the following May. A meal plan regime which kept kids well fed, but not over-fed or over-fat, might actually appeal to parents. And such meal plans used to exist.

The university where I was an undergrad had a one-year housing requirement. I moved off campus (and saved quite a bit of money) as soon as I could, but I did spend two semesters living in dorms and eating in dining halls. The dining halls followed the old cafeteria model, with the main plate (protein, starch, two veg) dished out by staff. Salads, beverages and desserts were pre-portioned. And, unlike commercial cafeterias, the desserts came at the end of the serving line, not the beginning. Servers would give you extra veg on the side if you asked, but seconds on anything else meant getting back in line. That level of inconvenience meant that seconds were the exception, not the rule. The system wasn't able to make sure each student ate a balanced diet, but it made that outcome far more likely than the "all you can eat of whatever you choose, maximally available and maximally convenient" model can even hope for.

So other models are possible, even if they mean more work for Food Services staff. At Greenback, dining plans are differentiated and priced based on how many meals per week a student is entitled to -- how often you eat. But dining plans could just as well (I won't say just as easily) be priced by what you eat, or how much you eat. Why couldn't there be a dining plan which includes only vegetarian food or restricted animal protein (like a classic Mediterranean diet)? Or one which covers just first portions at each meal? Couldn't such an arrangement avoid contributing to student obesity while potentially saving students (and parents) money?

While food consumption is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, I don't know of any school which figures what students eat into their GHG totals. Part of the reason is that estimating life-cycle emissions for a wide range of foods which originate around the world is nearly impossible, and part of it is based on the assumption that if our students weren't eating on campus they'd be eating somewhere else so no net increase in emissions is created.

But even with no impact on published GHG totals, universities could contribute to society's sustainability with more intentionally designed meal plans. Not encouraging students to overeat would be a step in the right direction. Not encouraging students to mis-eat would be another. Teaching kids that eating well, being nourished, getting re-energized isn't just about grease, sugars, starches and salt would likely lead to healthier and wealthier alumni in decades to come. And -- if we want to get radical here -- introducing actual flavor and variety to the menu, educating kids' palates at the same time we try to educate their minds, might set the stage for a significant shift in this, the most over-fed society (and college campuses are one of its more over-fed segments) the world has ever known.


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