At Binghamton University, students have a meal plan system unlike many other colleges. While most colleges rely mainly on a swipe system, allotting a certain number of weekly “swipes” to enter dining locations, BU offers instead a system that offers six possible meal plan options, ranging from Meal Plan A, starting students with $1,181 each semester, to Meal Plan F, starting at $477. The system functions on the idea that a student should pay only for what they eat rather than how often.
The system works well in that it allows for flexibility in options, with services such as the pasta station and La Montaña in Mountainview’s Appalachian Collegiate Center, allowing students to completely customize their food. Customization is beneficial in that it offers a wider array of dining options to students with food restrictions or allergies. However, the flexibility and customization that this system allows for necessitates accommodation when paying for items that have been customized or items that do not have preset serving sizes. This flexibility is accounted for by weighing these food items on scales placed at each register.
Weighed food, however, often costs much more than food options, which have set portion sizes. This becomes an issue when most of students’ healthier food options need to be weighed. The fruit and salad bar contains most fruit and vegetable options throughout dining halls, and the price of buying these foods is a large deterrent to healthy eating habits. In November, B-Healthy, part of BU’s Healthy Campus Initiative, tabled in BU dining halls with free carrots and hummus in an attempt to educate and survey students about their eating habits. A survey asked students to list how many servings of fruit and vegetables they got each day and the reasoning behind their answer. I noticed that the survey collected in Appalachian Collegiate Center saw consistent answers of one or fewer servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and every student response under the reasoning column read, “too expensive.”
Students then seem to be in agreement on the overpriced fruit options at the salad bar, all of which cost 22 cents per ounce. The “median” meal plan which most students use is Meal Plan C, which gives students $910 per semester and a recommended spending of $56.37 per week. Should students consume the recommended two cups, or 16 ounces, of fruit per day from the salad bar, they would then be spending $24.64 per week on fruit alone — spending that equates to roughly 44 percent of their recommended budget for the week. This percentage does not account for students who may opt to choose fruit from the “premium” fruit selection, which costs nearly twice as much. Eating fruit can easily double the cost of meals on campus.
The cost of healthy food options is a large problem at BU for two reasons: Health issues continue to rise in America and the costs of healthy food options discriminate against low-income students. Healthy food options need to be accessible at a time when our society is seeing a consistent rise in childhood obesity, with percentages tripling from a 1976-1980 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to another conducted from 1999-2016. Weight gain among freshmen in college is 5.5 times greater than that experienced by the general population. This issue is further reinforced when BU gym membership, unlike many other colleges, is not included in tuition.
When fried foods are cheapest in a collegiate setting, all students are likely to gravitate toward unhealthy eating habits; it is low-income students, however, who will suffer the most from this system. Although the “average” meal plan option for most students is Meal Plan C ($910 per semester), it is very likely that lower-income students will choose cheaper meal plans. The 44 percent of the weekly budget spent on fruit in Meal Plan C would increase to a whopping 83 percent for students on the lowest meal plan, Meal Plan F. Even if students on Meal Plan F bought whole fruits instead of fruit from the salad bar, it could equate to nearly a quarter of their recommended expenditures for the week. Students with lower incomes are then most drastically affected by the system, facing recommended portion sizes that are impossible to uphold.
Overall, college campuses need to do a better job of offering healthy food options to students. When meal plan fees total to over $2,000, students feel rightful entitlement to healthy and affordable food options. If B-Healthy wants to make a bigger impact on daily student health decisions, BU dining needs to be examined more closely for insufficient options and potential solutions to BU’s increasing semblance of a food desert.
Kaitlyn Liu is a freshman majoring in English.