As I was completing some readings on food policies and food environments, I began to notice the food environment at my university. I would have hoped to see an environment with lots of fruits, vegetables, nutritional meals, and health-wellness programs, but was disappointed to see a school almost populated by cheese, carbohydrates, and grease. Especially for first-year students at Rutgers University, eating healthy can be a difficult task. The primary food choices that come to mind when I think of eating on or near campus are pizza, grease truck sandwiches, Cook Campus Center quesadillas, and nachos. Most of these options are over-processed, preservative intense, and cholesterol high. This does not mean that the campus or the area does not offer healthier options, however the options are usually pricier, inconvenient, or not provided through meal swipes. Ensuring that a school with more than 45,000 undergraduate students stays healthy and active can be difficult, but not impossible.
While acknowledging the size and abundance of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, I also researched other schools with similar student populations and saw a copious number of schools with a greater focus on healthy habits. For example, Virginia Tech University, with an enrollment of more than 29,000, offers students many healthy options for meals and programs to get active. Listed under Greatist as one of the healthiest colleges in 2012, ranked third on The Princeton Review’s list of best food, and ranked tenth on College Prowler’s list of healthiest dining options, Virginia Tech University seems to rank their students’ health and diets of high importance. Some programs at Virginia Tech University are a six-week workout incentive program and the Y.E.S. Program (You’re Eating Smarter Program), which provides websites with nutritional value, table cards of healthy eating topics, educational events in dining centers, and more. Beyond these programs, the school also provides the nutritional alternatives.
Should it be the universities responsibility to promote healthy living? Yes, I believe as an institution that mandates tuitions and takes in young adults in their first years of living without parents or guardians, the university has a responsibility to encourage healthy, active adults. As mentioned in “Food Environments,” by Carolyn Cannuscio and Karen Glanz, the United States has the heaviest population in the world, and therefore, we should attempt to intercept these food habits just as students are about to enter the world where the feed themselves and possibly their families. Schools should attempt to energize and fuel the students since a nutritious diet, less stress, and better study habits can all be correlated. A nutritious diet provides the foundation for an active, productive day and life. As stated on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, “evidence suggests that a diet of nutritious foods and a routine of increased physical activity could help reduce the incidence of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.” It is part of the university’ responsibility to promote student’s health and provide nutritious diets, especially in the campus centers and dining halls where a majority of first-year students do not have food options beyond their meal swipes. Although many studies of food environments focus on rural communities and low-income areas, the food options available for students stuck on the university meal plans should also be addressed. I know many students that had to decide between pizza or old-plain-unexciting salad for a to-go lunch, and we can venture to guess which option they picked. Likewise, it is a lot easier to adhere to healthy living when the environment harbors the same mindset. I know I personally have trouble resisting the numerous opportunities to grab French fries, pizza, or other greasy options all on my walk home from class. Moreover, sticking to an already established healthy lifestyle is easier than attempting to get fit, lose weight, and change unhealthy habits when the students’ are out in the ‘real world’ with slower metabolisms, costly fitness programs, and an abundance of fatty, cheap food options.
Students are an important population to promote healthy lifestyles, as the future of our food and health policies are in their hands. And essentially I feel that we should apply the small and large-scale strategies that promote healthy food environments, mentioned in “Food Environments,” to universities as a separate entity due to the lack of integration between local communities and students. These strategies include increasing access to fresh foods, conservation policies for farmlands, and national initiatives to combat childhood obesity. On the university scale we can encourage farmer’s markets, nutrition education, and possibly promoting local farmers or farmland. These are small steps, but could help foster healthier food environments nationwide.