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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Straight from print: AU strives to provide healthy meals

Despite efforts, many AU students are unhappy with dining options

On paper, AU’s on-campus nutrition is golden. AU dining services offer nourishing salads at Freshii, an assortment of vegetables in the Terrace Dining Room and rotating vegetable-centric dishes at Global Fresh. And yet, students don’t seem pleased.

The Partnership for a Healthier America

AU’s food services are run by Aramark, which controls the food offered in TDR, Global Fresh, P.O.D Market, Starbucks, Subway, Argo Tea, Pi & Fry, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Elevation Burger, Freshii, P.O.D. Mini Mart and University Club. All retail locations are contracted separately, including The Davenport Coffee Lounge, American Cafe, The Mudbox, Asian Flavors and Megabytes Cafe.

Despite the seemingly long list of dining options, Kogod sophomore Nancy Italia finds the campus offerings to be lacking in flavor and variety, especially in TDR. Aside from Freshii, she said the other retail locations don’t have many options to choose from.

“I’m a vegetarian Indian brought up in Bangkok, so flavor is key, but the only problem is there is very little variety and options, and the options that are available aren’t flavorful,” Italia said.

In February 2015, AU, along with 25 other universities including George Washington University and Howard University, teamed up with the nationally recognized Partnership for a Healthier America. The partnership includes a three year plan to improve the overall health of students, faculty and staff through better eating habits and increased physical activity.

“As one of the guidelines to meet the Partnership for a Healthier America’s Healthier Campus Initiative standards, we must feature at least five different types of fresh fruits, five different types of fresh vegetables, and at least two 100 percent whole grain options at every meal service,” RJ La Porte, Aramark’s senior district marketing manager, said in an email. “We also must offer lean proteins, as well as low and non-fat dairy options at every meal service. We generally exceed each of these standards daily.”

In addition, AU is working toward implementing a variety of healthier food and beverage services for students by serving locally sourced food options in dining locations, providing nutritious catering options, promoting drinking water over other beverages and granting nutritional counseling to all students, according to Partnership for a Healthier America’s website.

But what many AU students truly lack is a willingness to try healthier foods, when placed alongside classic comfort foods like pizza and mac and cheese, Kathleen Holton, a nutritional neuroscientist and assistant professor of health studies at AU, said.

“The students have to be willing to eat the healthy food that’s being offered,” Holton said. “Really the only way around that is for it to only be really healthy foods, and in colleges you’d have a lot of unhappy students.”

Greatist, an online news publication that works to promote a healthy lifestyle, examined how health has impacted universities across the country in the realms of nutrition, fitness, mental health and sexual health. The results ranked The University of Maryland as the healthiest campus in the D.C. metro area in September. The list of healthiest campuses was compiled through campus surveys, Trojan’s Sexual Health Report and The Princeton Review rankings of best campus food. But AU really doesn’t fall far behind in providing fair choices to students.

A look at TDR’s menu

TDR is required by its agreement with the Partnership for a Healthier America to serve lean proteins, whole grains, vegetables and fruit at every meal, but still provides unhealthy options such as ice cream and french fries for students daily. On one afternoon in November, the dining hall served kale, turkey cutlets, sweet potatoes, zucchini and yellow squash, all alongside hot dogs, bacon mac and cheese, crispy breaded pork and pizza. Students can find the daily menu online on AU Dining’s website.

“The University is responsible for offering healthy food choices, just as long as students who want to eat healthy can,” Holton said. “If the only things they were offering [were] burgers, pizza, hot dogs and mac and cheese then that would be wrong. I think we need a balanced exposure. The fact that they’re doing multiple vegetables is good.”

On the other hand, Emilia Nurmukhametova, sophomore in Kogod and president of AU’s Bhakti Yoga and Vegetarian Club, said she believes TDR could add even more vegetables to the mix.

Overall, providing foods for a plant-based diet would be even more cost-effective than those using animal products, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. A plant-based diet is one which utilizes plant oils instead of animal protein, and includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The average person saves $750 a year by following a plant-based diet, making this request for more vegetables and other plant-based options reasonable.

“One of our most successful nutrition education campaigns came as part of a collaboration with the Humane Society of the United States, where we teamed up to promote Meatless Mondays in the TDR,” La Porte said in an email. “On Mondays, we have definitely seen an increase not only in the awareness of the benefits of Meatless Monday, but also an increase in consumption of plant-based products, so we are happy with the results.”

Grab and go meals

AU students are known for having packed schedules, which makes grab-and-go retail locations like Einstein's Bros. Bagels and Freshii appealing choices during mealtimes. And although calorie counts are posted throughout all dining locations, one major concern for students nutritionally should be their sodium intake, Holton said.

Holton used sandwich retail locations such as Subway and Megabytes as prime examples for campus eateries with excessively high sodium meals. Most of their meals include bread, processed meats and cheeses that all have an exceptional amount of added salt.

“Subway is one of the highest sodium meals you can get, and college students tend to have very high sodium levels. Disturbingly high,” Holton said. “Right now the recommendation is to get 1,500, is the goal for sodium. I have students in my class who are at 5,000, so I mean I see really high sodium levels for students who eat on campus.”

Excess sodium levels can lead to high blood pressure, bloating from increased water retention, headaches and stomach cancer, to name a few risks. Looking at Subway’s nutrition information, several of their sandwiches have over 1,000 mg of sodium, which is approaching the daily recommended amount of 1,500 mg, according to Holton and the American Heart Association.

Dietary restrictions

Despite AU’s efforts to improve students’ health, many students don’t seem particularly pleased with the offerings, specifically those with dietary restrictions.

“Special dietary needs are taken very seriously by our foodservice staff. Our registered dietitian reviews every single ingredient and menu item that is served in our dining hall, and labels for the eight major allergens, gluten and vegan/vegetarian,” La Porte said in an email. “She also works with our staff to in-service our employees about the importance of special dietary needs and the proper food handling techniques.”

Nurmukhametova said she does not plan on enrolling in a meal plan next year, even though she still plans on living on campus. As a vegan, she finds the campus offerings which are suitable for her dietary needs to be lacking in variety and nutritional value. Nurmukhametova’s standard options are Freshii and Global Fresh, but she said the available choices become repetitive quickly.

“One thing is having options, having fresh and nutritious options is another,” Nurmukhametova said. “From the first look, there’s nothing to complain about, but after a month you get really used to it. It’s like I’ve been here for months and I’m having the same meal everyday.”

Nurmukhametova said she frequently finds herself having to ask workers if the food being served contains milk, eggs or fish. In her opinion, it is important to remember that not every vegan or vegetarian has the same dietary concerns. For example, some students may identify as vegetarian and still eat eggs, while some may not. And while some students may choose to follow a certain lifestyle, others do so for religious reasons or out of necessity for their health, such as keeping kosher or being gluten free.

“We also feature the Worry Free Zone in the dining hall, in which gluten-free options are available,” La Porte said in an email. “We have a separate gluten free cook, who prepares food in a separate kitchen area with segregated gluten-free cooking equipment for students with strict dietary needs.”

Though the Worry Free section is open everyday, the hot entrees are only available during lunch and dinner on weekdays, according to La Porte. On weekends, the only gluten free options available in the section are bagels, breads, cereal, condiments and waffles.

Sophomore Anna Shafer, who has a gluten allergy, has struggled to find options that work for her.

“It’s very frustrating to be gluten free on this campus,” said Shafer. “Most of the quick to-go things are eliminated for me. I can’t do Einstein’s in the morning, nothing from Bene [Pi & Fry], no Elevation Burger. There’s usually at least one thing I can get in Global Fresh, but that changes every semester.”

Another concern for Shafer is cross-contamination, and she said she often discovers which foods she can’t eat the hard way -- by experiencing an allergic reaction. She said she has found many of the foods in TDR to be improperly marked or not marked at all for their ingredients, so she is often required to make her own guesses. For example, none of the salad dressings are marked for dietary restrictions and the sweet potato fries are not gluten free, according to Shafer.

“As with any vegan or vegetarian preparation, we are careful to avoid cross-contamination with any meat and dairy products, and we do so by using separate designated cutting boards and knives, as well as practicing proper food safety standards and changing gloves,” La Porte said in an email. “Our Registered Dietitian also in-services our employees about the importance of preventing cross-contamination in the context of vegan and vegetarian diets.”

With different diets naturally comes different nutritional needs, Holton stressed the necessity of making sure that these students are getting the proper amount and type of nutrients.

“I think that’s actually a big concern is vegetarians’ need to have adequate protein. Many of them don’t know they have to combine certain foods to make a complete protein, and that they’re not going to get all of the amino acids,” Holton said.

Vegetarians need protein sources with adequate amino acids, which are the building blocks for proteins within the body. Holton recommends that vegetarians focus on getting their necessary protein from sources available at AU such as soybeans, tofu, eggs or rice and beans, all of which AU states on its menu are served daily in TDR.

Holton said that TDR seemed to be the healthiest option available on campus for students, and that an easy fix to encourage students to make healthier choices would be by offering sample menus for students in the dining hall. This would help with meal planning for all types of diets and ensure students are getting the appropriate nutritional value out of their meals.

She also suggested AU dining provide comprehensible signs throughout TDR to encourage students to make healthy decisions and help guide them through these choices along the way. As of right now, Freshii appears to be the retail location with the healthiest choices, though TDR is a healthier option, according to Holton.

The cost of eating on campus

Meal plans are required for all freshman and sophomores living on campus, and the high prices are an additional concern for students when trying to make healthy decisions. Even students who want to eat well based on their own judgements are forced to use meal swipes throughout the semester, Nurmukhametova said.

“It’s just easier for me to go to Cava everyday, rather than go to TDR and have something that’s not going to be good for me,” said Nurmukhametova, who said she often finds herself going off campus for cheaper, healthier alternatives.

Meal plan prices are based on how many meal swipes students purchase. The largest block plan includes 250 swipes for the semester, each for $10.20, while the smallest block plan includes 50 swipes per semester at $11.44 per meal.

For many students, $10 to $12 seems excessive for even a healthy meal, not to mention for a bagel and coffee or two slices of pizza. Students need to understand the value of their dollar compared to how nutrient dense their meal is, Holton said.

“Bagel and coffee, obviously that’s going to be appealing to people at breakfast time. There’s nothing you’re getting that’s great for you in a bagel, it’s not like it’s a good meal,” Holton said.

Italia said she would like to see more vegetarian options available for breakfast in TDR. Shafer also said gluten free options for breakfast in TDR would be helpful, as well as more choices in general, a better system for labeling foods as gluten free and warnings for potential cross-contamination.

“Definitely marking everything in TDR would be really helpful, and I think it’s absolutely absurd that they don’t fill the gluten free section on the weekends,” said Shafer. “I’d like more quick and easy options, more meal swipe options that are gluten free and more clearly marked options at Freshii.”

Looking to the future, Nurmukhametova hopes to see the University taking greater responsibility in providing nutritional options for all of their students, especially those with various dietary concerns.

“Respect people with dietary restrictions,” said Nurmukhametova. “There are things [foods] that make us feel good and it is important.”

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