Kadlec: Food struggles of a student on the go

Case Western Reserve University has been making strides within the past few years to support a healthy college lifestyle, such as the Sustainable Food Initiative and the recent campus-wide ban on smoking. Unfortunately, our dining services still fall short of providing students with a way to determine what’s best to eat at a given meal. Sometimes food is served without labels at all. So how do we know it’s healthy?

The only nutritional information Bon Appétit provides has to be searched for online, and even then it isn’t quite clear. Sometimes you have to dig deeper into the website to find the nutritional facts for one specific item, and since there are a ton of “buffet” options, the nutritional facts for those items don’t even get listed.

The main issue with the nutritional facts is that there’s no way for a student to tell what a “serving size” is when serving themselves in the dining hall. Not to mention that serving sizes are given in ounces, despite students not being provided something with which to weigh their food. Even if something like that were made available, most students don’t have the time to weigh each individual item and make sure it sticks to the serving. We are all quite literally on-the-go. If we can’t ration out a proper serving, there’s little value in having the nutritional information available.

As well as the listings online, the food services also implement what they call the “Well-Being Indicator”. This green arrow next to the labels on food provides a “quick, at-a-glance visual that puts nutrition into an overall context of health,” according to the Bon Appétit website.

Even this, however, doesn’t do the job. The Well-Being Indicator ranks food based on its nutritional facts, but it doesn’t actually describe the components in the food that are beneficial (or not) to your health. CWRU’s website for the indicator states, “The arrow is generated by adding the fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and lean protein content of the item, then subtracting for added sugar, sodium, or saturated fats. Meals with the healthiest attributes appear with a fuller arrow, while meals with fewer healthy attributes appear with a less full arrow.”

None of the actual values are listed on the foods, however. It is hard to tell just how much they “add” and how much they “subtract” because the students are only ever provided with the calories, which aren’t correlated with the scale.

“Breaded Eggplant Parmesan With Marinara Sauce” at 530 calories is ranked the same as “Vegetable Chili” at 190 calories.

Because of this, students can’t get a grasp on why the foods they eat are good or bad for them. They can’t learn anything about nutrition, as the indicator doesn’t even clue students in on why scrambled eggs, for example, are ranked higher than steel-cut oatmeal. Using a simple ranking system without supporting the decision with an explanation comes across as subjective, and general nutrition isn’t subjective.

At stations such as Grab-it and Bag-it, food is already separated into portions, but the options are a whole other problem. Considering that the most nutrient-dense source of protein is beans, according to the Family Doctor website, it seems strange that we more often see ham and chicken in the dishes. Going along the same line, the meatless options in general are unfulfilling and sparse. There are certain weeks where someone who can’t eat meat, but also doesn’t want to chew on a block of tofu, has to settle for the sugary mess of a PB&J sandwich, along with the high-carbohydrate sides: chips, cookies and crunchy granola bars.

Although sugar is good for quick bursts of energy, being forced to eat that same thing every day for a week would end up in overconsumption of simple sugars. Things like that need to be balanced out with something more nutrient-dense, which is hard to do when you’re not sure what foods on the menu have what nutrients.

Variety is also a major issue in our dining halls. To make sure your diet has enough vitamins and minerals, you need to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, optimally by pulling from all categories of seasonal produce. Now, name the last time you found a fruit or a vegetable at one of the dining services that hadn’t already been there the entire year. We have plenty of the macro- and micronutrients provided by apples and oranges, but are all missing out on the antioxidants and nutrients found in, say, blueberries and strawberries.

This lack of seasonal variety is due largely in part to Bon Appétit’s mission to simultaneously support a healthy food plan, and to get locally-grown ingredients. It would be harder for them to find locally sourced fruits and vegetables that are out of season. However, it can be done; it would just require a lot more effort and planning.

A healthy diet is based on three things: moderation, balance, and variety. Although there are good intentions in their work, Bon Appétit still has a long way to go before they successfully meet all three of these criteria.

The CWRU University Food Committee is a good place to start if you’re interested in providing opinions and bettering dining experiences across campus. They host a food forum where they take feedback from students and use it to help reform and improve the different dining halls and cafés CWRU students frequent.