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The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

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Opinion: Feed my starving college students

Dining hall meal or prison food? We can’t tell.
Image by Noah Liebl
Food insecurity has somehow become an accepted part of the college experience.

Ketchup as a fruit, beer as a substitute for water, 99-cent ramen and frozen chicken pot pie: everything a growing college student needs to operate at a high level.

The average nutrient-devoid college student meal plan is bad enough to make your local 7/11 sound like a Michelin star restaurant. The plight of college students concerning high-quality food options is nothing new and is even romanticized by our culture. 

As of the past decade, 95% of American college students still fail to eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. 

You have probably heard the term Freshman 15 because it happens to so many people. 

At the University of Minnesota, dining halls have a lack of quality choices and are widely considered subpar. Students complain but are presented with no real solutions. 

On our campus, once students inevitably switch to either the already overpriced apartment lifestyle or decide to live in a house, they are confronted by a campus-wide food desert. The only form of an oasis is a lackluster Target in the heart of Dinkytown.

It is as if improper nutrition is another collegiate rite of passage with zero benefits. 

Ellie McDowell, a social worker involved in North Hennepin Community College’s food distribution, said she wonders why this is the case. 

“Why are we romanticizing the fact that people are hungry? Why is that being normalized? From a societal standpoint, that is where the issue may lie,” McDowell said. 

Many people have some idea of how food insecurity (insufficient access to proper quality and quantities of food) or poor nutrition negatively impacts their cognitive function. However, for college students, there are added correlations between food insecurity and academic performance, emotional health and the formation of poor lifelong eating habits. 

These poor habits do not always disappear after graduation. 

A 2023 study of almost 12,000 students from 31 different universities in China cited a consistent correlation between poor eating habits and obesity, the prevalence of infectious diseases and other chronic diseases. 

A researcher who participated in this study emphasized a need to address the formation of these long-term health concerns by providing students with a proper food environment, according to ScienceDaily

Despite numerous calls to action and archives of publicly available information documenting our understanding of the relationship between food and our well-being, many universities seem reluctant to invest more in their students’ nutrition.

People often advocate for educating all college students about processed foods, harmful and unnatural ingredients or the meaning of specific packaging labels. While this is useful information, education may not do much to fix the problem. 

Everyone knows having Doritos and frozen pizza is bad for them. But when you’ve got homework, jobs, interviews or other college activities to balance — and don’t have the financial flexibility to spend six dollars on organic eggs — affordability and convenience take priority. 

So, what can be done to address these issues?

To credit our university, there are at least a few options for individuals with high food insecurity. We partner with the government in offering students access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides students with financial assistance and food options that fit their budget. 

James Sellers, a member of The Food Group, a local food bank, said expanding this program should be a top priority, especially considering SNAP’s successful track record.

“Expanding SNAP would at least give more freedom and choice for individuals. When we’re talking about food, we’re talking about a lot of variability between individuals,” Sellers said. “People in the upper echelons of higher education need to provide more resources for students to have access to these things.”

Alongside SNAP, the University also gives students access to the Nutritious U Food Pantry at Boynton. The pantry offers quality food options provided by a variety of local food banks, which have information available on Boynton’s website. 

The website also provides links to other local, affordable and healthy food options such as Kitchen Coalition, Brightside Produce and other meal kit services. Although not necessarily cheap, these options are time-effective. 

Though the Nutritious U Food Pantry is a great resource, it has limits. Students can only visit the pantry twice a month, and only one time per week. The pantry is also only open during the second and fourth week of each month, giving students limited use options. 

Like SNAP, the expansion of Nutritious U’s capabilities could significantly benefit students. If the University truly cares about student nutrition, it should be willing to divert a few grand a semester away from the Board of Regents’ passion projects and instead allow for critical resources like Nutritious U to increase their availability. Or, at the very least, put more effort into marketing food resources than just links at the bottom of a website or a few emails each year. 

Instead of poorly facilitating the construction of unreasonably priced apartments like Identity, which has an attached liquor store, McDonald’s and Subway, why not address the campus-wide food desert by implementing an easily accessible grocery store with healthy options? 

Or, more importantly, why not try to expand helpful resources (like SNAP and Nutritious U) that are addressing a critical issue like food insecurity?

If the University is not going to do its part, perhaps the government can do more to address collegiate food insecurity issues. 

The effectiveness of subsidies in influencing healthier food choices is well-documented. In a higher-tax state like Minnesota, it begs the question of why our government will not allocate more towards college student nutrition, especially considering how many people struggle with such an important issue.

As college students, there is not much that can be done outside of hoping that University officials reject their historical precedent of prioritizing the financial bottom line and actually work to address food insecurity issues. 

Allocating time for meal prep, not spending as much money on eating out, or utilizing meal kit services to save time can be helpful practices, but they are not applicable in the same way for each student. 

The only thing we can do is continue to voice concerns. Proper nutrition affects every single student on campus. It is time we treat it as such.

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  • John Harkness
    Apr 6, 2024 at 7:53 am

    More students need to know about and avail themselves of local free food services, like SoupForYou! on E. Franklin and 25th (every weekday at noon) and Sisters Camelot (various locations–check fb).