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College Students Want to Eat Healthy, So Why Do Dining Halls Have Processed Foods?

Many prospective students consider a college’s food when deciding which schools to apply to and attend. Popular ranking systems even attempt to quantify this feature. The Princeton Review, for example, ranks the top 20 “Schools with the Best Food” based on students’ answers to the survey question, “How do you rate the food on campus?”

This year’s rankings showcase the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Bowdoin College, and Washington University in St. Louis as the top three of twenty schools with particularly popular dining fare. UMass Amherst has even been featured on The Today Show for its famously delicious options. Ostensibly, the food quality is independent of the school’s size, endowment, or public or private status, since the top three schools vary greatly in these areas. One thing all three schools do have in common, however, is a commitment to providing local and unprocessed foods in their dining halls.

The Local Healthy UMass Food System Initiative, for example, ensures that UMass Amherst students have access to high-quality food at an affordable price while supporting local businesses surrounding the university. In the past year, UMass Dining has invested over $4.5 million in local and sustainable foods, with more than half sourced from the surrounding area. UMass even offers a How-To-Guide, allowing other institutions to implement a similar food service model for their students.

Similarly, Bowdoin sources its meat products locally, which are then prepared in its in-house meat shop. The fruits, vegetables, and herbs used are either sourced locally or grown on-site at the Bowdoin Organic Garden.

Much like UMass Amherst and Bowdoin, Washington University has a commitment to ensuring the ingredients used in students’ food are as fresh as possible and sourced locally. They purchase their meat and produce from vendors all within a 150-mile radius of campus.

What does this mean for the students at these institutions? They are ensured a diet that incorporates fewer processed foods, which tend to be high in added sugar. Though not all processed foods are unhealthy, many promote weight gain. The obesity epidemic in Brazil, for example, is linked to the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Though the Princeton Review’s rankings indicate that students prefer the unprocessed dining hall fare, not all institutions have the resources to provide such foods. One meaningful step that colleges can take, however, is removing the ultimate processed food - sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, energy drinks, and juices with added sugar - from dining halls and vending machines. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), almost two-thirds of U.S. youth (ages 2-19) consume at least one sugar-sweetened beverage per day. By eliminating these beverages from campuses, institutions can make a big impact on student health without having to spend more. The University of California, San Francisco, has piloted this strategy with anecdotal success, removing sugar-sweetened beverages from vendors on its medical campus in 2015. If the mission of the school is to prepare younger generations for their future, then schools should start readying students for a healthy life in addition to a career.