Colleges must provide food for thought

One of the popular stereotypes of college students is that they are starving, but it turns out that many actually do go hungry, giving the cliché a serious edge.

A study conducted at Western Oregon University and published Jan. 9 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that 59 percent of the university’s students struggled with limited access to food at some point in 2013. When students are unsure of where their food will come from, it can cause stress and negatively affect their academics. While some meal plans are affordable, not all students can access them.

About 14.3 percent of people ages 18–24 are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—more commonly known as food stamps—according to the 2012 Current Population Survey. Many students qualify for SNAP even if they work 20 hours per week, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Other students find themselves homeless, as reported Nov. 5, 2012 by The Chronicle, which makes it difficult to find a stable source of nutritious food. Even though it is not a college’s job to nanny students, it should provide resources for all students to eat healthy on a budget.

Currently, Columbia offers three different options for meal plans at the University Center cafeteria—$200 for 40 meals, $400 for 80 meals or about $1,700 per year for 15 meals per week and $690 in flex dollars to spend in the campus cafeterias and vending machines, according to Columbia’s website. This is relatively affordable—the plans amount to approximately $5 per meal—and ensures that students do not survive on purely convenience store food. Plus, the University Center has some nutritious choices, even if students tend to gravitate toward the greasier cafeteria offerings.

But the meal plans at Columbia are only available to students who live in the residence halls, which only includes approximately 27 percent of the current student body, leaving a large majority of students to fend for themselves.

Not all students can afford to live in the dorms, and those students deserve affordable, healthy options, too. Opening up the UC’s cafeteria to commuter students would be the fastest solution. Creating specialized meal plans for off-campus students would also allow them to pay using financial aid.

However, the UC’s cafeteria only seats 609 people, serves food during limited hours and is shared among students from Roosevelt, DePaul and Robert Morris universities. Clearly, if large numbers of Columbia students flock there, it will be overcrowded. The UC may be an adequate short-term solution, but Columbia still needs a student center that provides affordable, healthy food options for all students.

Theoretically, the bottom floor of the 731 S. Plymouth Court building is Columbia’s shared student space, but it can only fit a few hundred of Columbia’s more than 9,000 students and does not offer food. Other downtown campuses like DePaul and Roosevelt have centers that usually include food vendors and places to sit and study.

When administrators are planning a student center, they should take food insecurity into consideration. The college could work out deals with vendors to provide cheaper, healthier options than are currently available and make the space offered for longer hours, creating a commuter-friendly space and assuring that all Columbia students have access to the college’s resources, not just those who live in the residence halls. Columbia students could also use their campus cards at the vendors, allowing them to use financial aid to purchase food at the student center.

Ideally, students attending a high-cost private college like Columbia would know where their next meals will come from. However, the college needs to consider that this is not always the case and plan accordingly.