What’s eating UDS?

Part one in a three-part column series exploring college dining.

Brian Reinken

They say you are what you eat. If that’s true, then students across campus must be grappling with identity crises. University Dining Services feeds thousands of students every day. But do you really know what’s in your lunch?

UDS is the result of a partnership between the University of Minnesota and Aramark Corporation, a company that provides food services to universities and prisons nationwide. In 2008, the University and Aramark renewed their partnership through a 12-year contract worth $96 million.

Students living in University housing must purchase a residential dining plan, which, depending on the package, includes anywhere from 10 meals per week to unlimited meals over the semester. If students fail to select a desired plan, UDS automatically assigns a plan with 14 meals per week.

As anyone who has eaten in a University dining hall will know, meals are buffet-style, which means students are free to eat as much as they choose. UDS strategically disperses pamphlets within the dining halls to provide nutritional and health information for anyone who cares to look. The information is also available online.

For inquisitive or health-conscious students, however, the nutritional information provided seems perilously sparse.

True, UDS provides information on the calories, fat, carbohydrates and sodium in its food, but it does not provide information regarding sugar, trans fat or saturated fat, all of which people should monitor in order to maintain a healthy diet. Furthermore, even the available nutrition information is unsettling.

It may not surprise students to hear that many of UDS’s dishes are high in fat and sodium — so high, indeed, that it would be easy for diners to surpass the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended dietary limits.

In many cases, though, UDS’s dishes are unhealthier than food from McDonald’s or Burger King, restaurants that have come to represent all that is wrong with American eating habits.

For example, the McDonald’s Big Mac has 29 grams of fat. Burger King’s Whopper has 35 grams. UDS’s “American burger with onion” boasts 36 grams of fat. Its “classic American chicken” sandwich has 39 grams.

It’s foods like these that contribute to America’s ongoing obesity epidemic. Nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese; childhood obesity levels are rising, too.

Although campaigns such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” focus on grade school lunches as a cause of childhood obesity, university dining more often slips below the radar. College weight gain is something of a joke, with the notorious “freshman 15” being more a rite of passage than a cause for concern.

One may think college students should be old enough to make their own decisions about what to eat. Once they graduate and enter the “real world,” there will be no one to monitor their diet.

But college as a whole isn’t the real world, and life in a student residential hall is even less so. Rather, college is a place to learn the skills necessary for success in the future. There is no reason that healthy eating should be on the sidelines.

It would not be difficult for UDS to remove the more egregiously unhealthy items from its menu. If temptation must be part of a life lesson, then it should at least be kept within the not-too-exacting limits of McDonald’s and Burger King.

To truly teach students how to eat better, the University should increase the availability of nutritional and dietary information.

While UDS provides resources to help students make healthy choices, these may not be enough for everyone. Those most in need of help don’t always seek it out, and there’s a “carpe diem” mentality to college dining: Eat it while you can because your metabolism won’t always be this robust.

Thinking along these lines, it’s easy to forget that students form tomorrow’s habits today.

UDS could improve its services simply by rewording the placards placed above every dish in the residential dining halls. These cards only detail their dishes’ calorie count and serving size. They can, however, be deceiving. Calories aren’t everything, and the perceptual difference between the current “Tuna Melt serving: each” and the potential “Tuna Melt sodium: 1096 mg; fat: 33 g; serving: each” is substantial.

It’s somewhat ironic that a university that pioneers so many commendable advances in medical research fosters such an unhealthy dining system. The school claims to be “Driven to Discover.” I’d like to see it live up to that motto by taking a more meaningful initiative in its students’ dietary health.

Next week, I’ll examine the supply side of university dining and see how the University’s meal program compares to those of other campuses across America.