Students deserve healthier food options

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Mingda Wu

A tray of cupcakes lays at the desert section of New Hall Dining.

By Derek Bos, Columnist

Roughly 63% of college students are not eating the daily recommended serving of fruits and vegetables, according to the American College Health Association. Some may blame the individual for not meeting daily recommendations, however, it is important that we take a step back and look at the larger system as a whole before placing sole blame on the students. 

One’s financial stability, as well as the environment, are two factors of health often preventing the typical college student from eating healthy, i.e., a well-balanced and varied diet of foods high in nutrients and low in added sugars, salt, and fats. 

Students without access to a car may have noticed how inconvenient it is to purchase groceries of their choosing. NIU is essentially a food desert — an urban area in which it is challenging to purchase affordable or good-quality produce. There’s no shop on campus offering an array of healthy foods (convenience store snacks do not count). 

Google Maps estimates the nearest grocery store to NIU, Jewel-Osco, to be a 36-minute walk (1.8 miles) — a venture hardly practical in the Midwest during the winter season. Of course, students could ride the bus; circling us back to the previous point of contention: inconvenience.  

A substantial number of students are left deciding between two choices: eating at a dining hall or eating fast food. Neither of these is particularly romanticized by health-conscious consumers. 

On certain days, the meals available kind of limit me to default to a salad if I try to prioritize eating healthy.”

— Malik Hall

Malik Hall, a sophomore computer science major and president of the residence hall association says that the options for food around campus are hit or miss. 

“I think NIU makes a conscious effort to have healthy options, but there are times where foods are limited in choice. There are usually healthy options available, like the salad bar (at Neptune), but on certain days, the meals available kind of limited me to default to a salad if I try to prioritize eating healthy,” said Hall. 

I’ve actually avoided the dining halls all semester for this very reason. Though a health-conscious student myself, I recognize I can’t live off the salad bar — and I’m a vegetarian. 

Meg Burnham, registered dietitian, nutritionist and nutrition education coordinator for NIU explains how the trickle-down effects of COVID-19 have impacted the NIU dining experience. 

“We’ve had a really difficult time getting a full staff in dining, and as a result, we’ve had to cut down on our array of options offered,” Burnham said.

NIU’s rotating menu is largely based on supply and demand, but they are always looking into new ideas for dishes, Burnham said. 

This year’s healthy options are less plentiful than before, Burnham said.  Regardless, Burnham says it is absolutely possible for a health-conscious consumer to comfortably dine in by taking creative control over their plates. 

One’s diet is ultimately a lifestyle choice. Although NIU is not legally obligated to facilitate convenient access to healthy food options, limiting a health-conscious student to a salad bar some days is cruel and unusual. Fruit cups are not a sustainable fruit option, and we shouldn’t comply with such shortcomings.  Hopefully, Burnham was right about the dining hall’s food limitations being a pandemic-specific issue. Only time will tell.