My youngest son is heading off to college this fall, going from home cooking to campus dining halls that have changed dramatically from my college years — and not for the better.
Back in the 1970s, before America's obesity epidemic accelerated, as a college student living on campus and surviving on the school meal plan, I had to hustle to the dining hall for a specific time window: 7:30 to 9 a.m. for breakfast, 11:30 to 1:00 p.m. for lunch, and 5 to 7 for dinner. If I was late, well, too bad. And the choices were limited — an entrée or two, a few side dishes, and one or maybe two desserts. Burgers and French fries were served only on special occasions. Sugary beverages weren't served at all. The salad bar held only lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, and a few dressings. The few students watching their weight made do with a bowl of cottage cheese. Food wasn't allowed in the library or study cubicles and nobody brought food or drinks to classes. Water bottles were unheard of. I can't recall a single vending machine in my dorm or any campus building. I also can't remember feeling hungry or deprived.
My son is bound for a campus groaning with food and beverages — looking closer to something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than the comparatively bare dining halls of my youth. Students carry snacks and drinks into their classrooms. Campus buildings and even college libraries are festooned with coffee shops and vending machines. Dining halls often look like shopping-mall food courts, with dizzying variety and limitless quantity. Soda and other sugary drinks are everywhere, nestled alongside alluring arrays of candy, ice creams, cookies, cakes and pies. One local university's website boasts: “Each residential restaurant serves as many as ten entrée options at every meal! All meals are buffet style and all-you-care-to-eat.” Dining halls are open all day, and when some do close at 9 at night or so, no need to worry: many campuses have online ordering services available until midnight that let students charge their meal plans for pizza, wings, six-packs of soda and other late-night binges.
No wonder so many students put on so much weight in their freshman year. The famous “Freshman 15” has a lot to do with the tsunami of easily available, all-you-can-eat buffet foods and the 24/7 plethora of snacks. The science on this is pretty simple: when too much food is available, people typically eat more than they should. Even having a wide variety of food available leads people to eat more than they do when they have fewer choices.
The transformation of the college campus into a movable feast does more than just threaten the health and well-being of my son and his classmates. In the United States, more than 30% of all food is wasted, and food waste contributes to global warming — really. For sanitary reasons, food can be left out for only a limited time before it must be chucked. Some campuses are trying to have their food waste composted, but much of it still ends up in landfills, where it decomposes into methane gas — an atmosphere-clogging greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
So what can we do about campus food opulence?
For starters, colleges should acknowledge their responsibility not to put their students — and my son — at risk for weight gain, obesity and the host of chronic diseases related to poor diets. Students have to make their own food choices, but it's colleges who're setting the table.
As research centers, universities could lead the way in showing how dining establishments can protect consumers rather than risk their health. By monitoring what and how campuses feed their students, colleges can work out which serving practices to promote — and which to limit. They can experiment with dining-hall hours, numbers of entrees, types of sides, portion sizes and constraints on all-you-can eat buffets. And these experiments could yield solutions that could benefit broader populations.
The goal here should be simple: eliminate the Freshman 15. By sharing what they learn from new approaches to healthier college eating, universities could help change the entire food industry. It's high time for higher education to step up to the plate.
Deborah Cohen is an M.D. and a senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in USA Today on August 20, 2013.