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Student Life

What Can We Do About the Bad Food on Campus?

Marlene Kern Fischer

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Last year when my youngest son was a freshman, I felt that overall his transition to college life went well. His biggest complaint was the food in the campus dining hall. He hated the variety (or lack thereof) as well as the quality.

I'd been down this road before with one of his older brothers, so I told him that no college food was like mom’s home cooking and he needed to lower his expectations.

I have to say that when he returned home for breaks, he was less picky and more appreciative of the meals that were placed before him. After 18 years of dealing with a finicky eater, his new and improved attitude came as a welcome relief.

Fast forward to fall 2020 and college life during a global pandemic. The food complaints have reached a new level and I can’t say I blame him.

First, the meals at his school (and most schools) are grab-and-go. Students find a spot outside to eat or take food back to their dorms. On my son's campus, there are a couple of tents outside one of the dining halls, each containing a dozen or so two-person tables. That’s a very limited amount of seating, which translates to a very limited amount of time to hang out with friends while you eat. Remember the lunches and dinners that lasted for hours with people coming and going? Students have lost the most social part of the day.

Then there's the quality of the food which, according to my son, is even worse than last year. It makes sense — when you’re not distracted by your friends, you focus on the food a little more (which is not a good thing). Additionally, with no buffets, choice is limited. Hot food doesn’t travel well in containers, and the sandwich thing gets old fast.

My son isn’t going hungry, but I still feel badly when he complains about the food and I’m not comforted by the fact that he isn't alone. Facebook parents’ pages from colleges all over the country are full of laments and concerns about the food, and there have been reams of stories in the news — kids in quarantine being delivered moldy meals, students with dietary restrictions getting exactly what they can’t eat, and food selections that leave you scratching your head. My friend’s son received green beans and Cheerios (without milk) for dinner one night while stuck in his room waiting for his COVID test results after first arriving on campus.

Anticipating the meal situation, I sent my son back to campus this fall with a picnic blanket and a totable camp chair. While the weather is good, I’ve encouraged him to eat outside with friends instead of alone in his room. He reports that people are indeed gathering on the lawns which I’m glad to hear.

But the food is still sub-par. Delivery services are available but Door Dash and Uber Eats get expensive. What else can we parents do to help out?

1. Send Food

My husband and I recently ordered our son a care package from a company called Grandma’s Chicken Soup, which besides chicken soup included other items like potato pancakes and the ingredients for grilled cheese. They even threw in a few little treats: a cookie in the shape of a chicken and a carrot pen. My son said it was actually too much food, so we suggested he share with a friend or two.

You can also send fresh food from home — a little dry ice and some Styrofoam and you’re good to go. Just keep in mind the small size of most dorm room refrigerators.

2. Reach Out

My son is lucky — he has cousins living nearby who invited him for a home-cooked meal to start the fast of Yom Kippur then sent him back with food for when he broke the fast the next night. I was relieved knowing he was well-nourished for a few days.

If you have friends or family near your child’s school, reach out to them and ask if they'd be willing to host your son or daughter for an occasional meal. If they're being cautious because of COVID-19, perhaps they could drop off some home cooking. It’s a lot to ask but these are unusual times, and most of us are happy when we're given a simple way to help someone out.

3. Petition for Change

This is an opportunity for your student to self-advocate and speak to the administration about their issues with the food. If they don’t make headway, you can consider stepping in. But there may not be much that can be done. I believe my son’s school is doing their best, all things considered. They have their hands full trying to keeping the student body coronavirus-free so the university can remain open. Food is not their highest priority.

4. Find a Kitchen on Campus

Circumstances have forced my son to be more resourceful. During the five months he was home this past spring and summer, he learned to cook a few dishes including an amazing chicken Française which he made a few nights ago in the kitchen at his fraternity house, which is not far from his dorm. (He proudly texted us a picture of the meal.)

Although some dorm kitchens are closed, others are available for student use. Encourage your student to cook their own meals now and then.

5. Look into Meal Plan Options

The food I sent up with my son is long gone but he goes into town when he can to get provisions so that he’s not relying solely on campus food. In fact, he's now on the lowest campus housing meal plan available having switched plans shortly after school began. It’s probably not feasible for your student to switch meal plans now, but it's worth looking into for next semester.

When my son comes home for Thanksgiving I plan to make all his favorite foods, like the sweet potato pie with little marshmallows we enjoy every year at the holiday dinner. And since he'll be home for two months, I'll have plenty of opportunity to show him some food love.

I'm hoping that by spring things will be better pandemic-wise. And then my son, and everyone else’s kids as well, will be able to hang out in the dining hall, with a bunch of friends, and eat food that they don’t notice isn’t all that good.

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Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother, food shopper extraordinaire, author and college essay editor. She has published two books: Trapped in My Sports Bra and Other Harrowing Tales and Gained a Daughter but Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic. Find her on Facebook at Thoughts From Aisle 4.
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