Many college students aren’t even eating one serving of fruits or vegetables in a day.
If you eat most of your meals in a college cafeteria or have a meal plan, maybe you know the feeling: You walk in to your campus dining hall with every intention to eat a healthy meal, but just one look at the salad bar’s limp greens and mealy tomatoes has you opting for a slice of pizza instead. Sometimes the limited selection of wholesome dining hall fare makes it easy for college students to put healthy eating aspirations on the back burner.
Results of a recent poll by the International Food Information Council Foundation show American adults are trying and failing to fit in the average government-recommended 4.5-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day — a struggle that’s familiar to college students. In fact, many students aren’t even eating one serving of fruits or vegetables in a day, according to a study of student eating habits published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior last August.
But is this really a surprise? Bound to campus dining services by meal plans or convenience, students encounter all kind of obstacles to balanced eating. Poor variety of fruits and veggies, the high cost of fresh food in comparison to processed snacks and limited access to nutritional information in cafeterias can all stand in the way of eating well at school.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Take City University of New York (CUNY), for example, where promoting healthy eating has become a major priority in recent years. The Healthy CUNY Initiative, which aims to transform CUNY into the healthiest urban university in America by 2016, introduced the Campaign for Healthy Food (CUNY CHeF) in 2011. The campaign, with the support of the New York Department of Health, is designed to improve the health of CUNY’s 250,000 degree students and its faculty and staff, by making healthier choices easier in cafeterias, vending machines and meetings.
“For many campus administrators around the country, food is seen more as a revenue stream for strapped universities than as a vehicle for improving health. We have worked to change that perception,” explained Nicholas Freudenberg, co-director of the Healthy CUNY Initiative and public health professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, in an email.
In its earliest stages, CUNY CHeF rigorously assessed what kinds of snack and beverage options were available to students on CUNY campuses and conducted surveys about their eating habits. These surveys helped focus and guide the campaign’s action, including a movement to post nutritional information for foods in CUNY cafeterias (requested by over 90% of student survey respondents).
The campaign hasn’t always been easy. Penniless college students aren’t always eager to shell out more money for healthier food. “Cost is a challenge. Most students are on a tight budget and healthier foods can be more expensive,” said CUNY CHeF project coordinator Patti Lamberson in an email. Lamberson added that sometimes cafeteria management is reluctant to change up menus for fear of losing money on new initiatives.
Nonetheless CUNY’s ambitious healthy eating program has made some serious strides so far. Over two years, about 125 student advocates have been trained to campaign for healthier foods on CUNY campuses. Based on research and polls of students and faculty, CUNY CHeF has released a report recommending strategies that the each individual CUNY campus, and the community as a whole, can take to improve healthy food options for students.
Even at other institutions where such sweeping healthy eating programs haven’t quite taken hold yet, cafeterias can take some simple measures to encourage healthy and balanced student diets. They can make tap water freely available and reduce processed snack food and candy offerings in order to stock salad bars with more fresh ingredients. College dining services may even want to consider partnerships with community farmers markets, in order to support the local economy while providing healthier food options to students.
Freudenberg is convinced that, as student desire for healthier food increases, college cafeterias will have no choice but to start meeting their demand. “In the long run, university food services can promote health and make money. Our surveys of students show that most students want healthier, tastier and more affordable food to be sold on campus,” said Freudenberg.
“Ultimately, as is already happening with tobacco policies, universities will recognize that making healthy food available on campus is part of being a responsible caring institution. The only question is who will be the leaders and who the laggards. We are proud to be making City University of New York a leader.”
Bottom line? When colleges prioritize healthy eating, it’s a whole lot easier for students to do the same on a personal level.
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