Yuan Tao, a sophomore majoring in psychology, clutched a carton of eggs as she perused the refrigerated section at Superior Grocers in the University Village.
A resident of Webb Tower, she sometimes finds the time to cook, spending about $100 a month to do so. But as she adjusted the eggs in the crook of her elbow while shopping on a Sunday afternoon, she revealed the other thing in her arms: a Subway sandwich.
“I’m there basically everyday,” she said. “I eat out a lot — I’m just too lazy to make my own food.”
She didn’t know how much she spent on food she bought ready-made — but conceded that in doing so, she lived a much more expensive lifestyle. The groceries she did choose to buy appeared purely complementary — eggs, vegetables and milk were part of her monthly purchase, as were snacks such as chips and ice cream.
College, though meant to be a time of personal growth and intellectual stimulation, can lead students down the path of cheap sugary snacks and packaged food or vending machine items hastily purchased in between classes.
Students simply don’t know how to spend money on food mindfully and economically and instead waste money and time on convenience buys — many of which are unnecessary snacks — that can often have negative effects on their physical and financial health.
For class, students often look for on-the-go, portable treats loaded with carbohydrates and sodium — or eschew healthier, fresh fruit options for pantry items they can stock on their shelves.
Many students like Tao, however, skip the whole mess and buy food from outside vendors, often not keeping track of the money spent on such items.
Even students who make an effort to stay home for meals and save money have trouble quantifying and remembering the food they eat.
Ralphs shopper Alexis Dirvin, a sophomore majoring in architecture, estimated that she and her three roommates spend about $200 to $400 a month on groceries. Her roommate Josanta Gray, a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism, agreed.
“We make stuff you can make in large quantities,” Gray said. “We make spaghetti, rice and red beans, a lot of Mexican food.”
“Oh, we make a lot of chicken too. And cake,” Dirvin said.
On-campus options, when presented, made students wince for a variety of reasons.
“Eating on campus is just too expensive,” said Victor Garcia, a graduate student studying film production, waiting for deli service at Ralphs.
Estimating that he spends about $300 to $400 a month on groceries, Garcia also added that he needed to eat out at casual restaurants because of his busy schedule. His job in Century City makes it easier for him to eat at establishments such as Pink Taco — even if he did cook.
Garcia said he was satisfied with the food prices and options near USC, calling them “pretty decent.” He expressed interest, however, in possibly having a warehouse shopping option close to campus.
“It would be nice to have a Costco around,” he said.
On any given Sunday, student shoppers can be seen stuffing items such as soda, potato chips, frozen pizza rolls and candy into their shopping carts instead of more healthy items that can serve as both snacks and components of meals, even though these more bang-for-your-buck items can often be the same price, if not cheaper, than their convenient counterparts.
Grocery stores are definitely not immune to the convenience bug. The first smell that wafts into shoppers’ noses as they enter Ralphs? The undeniable, pervasive scent of fried chicken meals ready to be devoured, sitting pretty in their plastic containers underneath heat lamps. This first display is right next to other convenient snacks: chips, sodas and baked goods — all devoid of any nutritional value.
At Superior, a two-ounce carton of Goldfish crackers costs 99 cents, and three pounds of carrots cost $1. At Ralphs, that same 99 cents can get you almost two pounds of bananas and a pound of navel oranges.
For a single meal, ingredients for taco salad can stretch for multiple meals: Two cups of Ralphs brand cheese, a head of Earthbound organic lettuce, red on vine tomatoes and three pounds of lean ground beef might add up to $12.76 without tax but can provide a variety of meal choices for multiple days.
A quick $3 drive-through taco will deliver one tiny meal with lots of sodium and a strong possibility of heartburn.
What’s worse is that what used to be eaten as meals has become food for mid-morning or mid-afternoon snacks. Drive-through lines at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Del Taco all spike in between lunch and dinner; the line at Panda Express is notoriously long after midnight.
Students, as a demographic, have adopted high-calorie meals as unhealthy and expensive meal options.
Many students don’t realize how much of a price they really pay for their convenience habit. Whether it’s that $5 footlong or that handful of candy from the vending machine in Taper Hall, those little pit stops add up. Eating a Subway sandwich each day comes out to spending around $150 a month — and that’s not even including the drink and the bag of chips.
Or the 15 pounds.
Clare Sayas is a junior majoring in public relations. Her column, “Spitting Cents,” runs every other Tuesday.