USC should improve nutrition on campus

In a nation currently battling epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, it’s time that hospitals and schools feel obligated — not just incentivized — to provide healthy dining options.

A piece by The Atlantic written by gastroenterologist Dr. Shilpa Ravella last week underscored a simple point — having hospitals house fast food chains doesn’t send the right message. The same, however, goes for universities like USC, a school that not only shoulders responsibility for 43,000 students, but also staffs the internationally acclaimed Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and oversees one of the nation’s largest teaching hospitals, LAC+USC.

Putting students and patients first means making nutrition a priority. Though nutritional advice is available at the Engemann Student Health Center, the University needs to show genuine care through concrete changes on all its campuses.

Let the national medical front cast hope. In a survey of 208 hospitals last winter, the Physicians Committee found that 20 percent housed fast-food restaurants on their campuses, a high statistic that is set to decline. And in a major move last December, Allina Health declared that it would no longer offer any sugar-sweetened beverages or deep-fried foods in its 13 hospitals and over 90 clinics across Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.

Universities should also not be overlooked. Students tend to base decisions on a youthful sense of invincibility. Though it’s impractical to ban all fried foods on campus, having healthier options is doable.

For students and the surrounding community, it’s no secret that eating mindfully is difficult. After all, for a tour that hits virtually every fast food chain imaginable, one only needs to walk a few blocks down Figueroa. Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, KFC, Panda Express, Taco Bell and Domino’s Pizza are all stationed within walking distance, landmarks of a “food swamp,” a term used to describe an area with an abundance of fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Even though a Panda Express already existed within a mile from main campus, another opened at Ronald Tutor Campus Center and yet another on the Health Sciences Campus, bringing fast food even closer to students. At California Pizza Kitchen, food isn’t much healthier, with salads averaging over 700 calories, and pizzas at over 1,000. The sandwiches, salads and yogurt parfaits offered at Seeds seem healthy, but when it comes to disclosing nutrition facts, the University hasn’t made a move. Under the nutrition info tab on USC Hospitality’s site, it still says, “Coming soon… until then, make wise choices!”

Students also need to be better educated about nutrition in general. Many students I know skip meals, forget them entirely or grab fast food and go. However, most can afford the time and money to prepare real food. It’s the idea of cooking after a long day that seems to deter this practice. As Mark Bittman of The New York Times wrote, “Taking the long route to putting food on the table may not be easy, but for almost all Americans it remains a choice, and if you can drive to McDonald’s you can drive to Safeway…  The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch.” Nutrition is the must for day-to-day physical and mental performance, especially when it comes to school.

Making it a little easier for students to do that should be a priority for the University. After all, people can be educated and motivated, but if the environment isn’t conducive to growth, nothing can happen. On top of the mountain of stress that students constantly deal with, an environment that encourages junk eating is one that’s “obesogenic.”

Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz says it best in her 2012 book Zoobiquity. She opens with a scene she stumbles upon early one morning: “French fries wilted in their own grease on paper plates holding burger scraps and ketchup smears. A yellow bag of M&Ms gaped open beside a gutted sack of Doritos.” The catch: “This wasn’t a frat house on Sunday morning or a bulimic’s bedroom. No, this was the on-call room used by the overnight team of a cardiac care unit.”

The best way to hack this side of human nature is to instigate a change in environment. Hospitals and schools that refuse to do that are neglecting important responsibilities.

At USC, efforts to install healthier options have been in the works. With places like the juice bar Nekter next to the School of Architecture, the University is taking steps in the right direction. Initiatives such as McCarthy Quad’s weekly farmers market, which was introduced in 2013, are part of a positive trend. With the University Village set to unveil in fall 2017, hopes are that the new developments maintain a healthy momentum.

Valerie Yu is a senior majoring in English literature and biological sciences. She is also the blogs editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Heart of the Matter,” runs  every other Thursday.