For America’s largest universities, achieving a nutritiously balanced campus is a lot harder than it looks. With each student comes a different set of eating habits, and on campuses as large and diverse as USC’s, reaching a consensus on dining options is virtually impossible. Add to the equation all the national fast food titans vying for the stomachs of hungry students, and you get quite a messy issue.
At USC, the nutrition dilemma is as long standing as it is impassable. Students, administrators and campus health experts each have their views, but material progress is hard to come by.
John Baldo, director of student affairs for the Undergraduate Student Government, said the problem is that when it comes to nutrition, the student voice is unclear. Some are committed to sticking with healthy food, but many more still form long, snaking lines at the fast food joints on campus.
“Most people are saying they want the burgers and fries. They like that stuff,” Baldo said. “But we also hear very regularly from vegetarians and people around campus that want healthier options.”
Baldo admits providing healthy options on campus is a challenge because a large portion of students still show that they want fast food.
In October, USG asked about 2,000 students which dining options they would most like to see in the new Ronald Tutor Campus Center.
According to the survey, the most popular choice, with 1,427 votes, was California Pizza Kitchen, and the second-most popular option, with 1,060 votes, was Panda Express. Wolfgang Puck and Baja Fresh were the third- and fourth-most popular choices.
Vegetarian options like Veggie Grill were also on the survey, but that restaurant received far fewer votes.
In the space where students could write in their own suggestions, the most common requests were In-N-Out and Chipotle, though a few students said simply, “anything healthy.”
“We try to offer what they’re looking for, but if it’s not selling then we will replace that with what the students will buy,” said Kris Klinger, director of USC Hospitality. “The students speak with their spending habits.”
Even at campus restaurants that offer some healthy items, like Baja Fresh, experts say students are ordering the least healthy options.
“Baja Fresh has a wonderful menu selection. But if you go to the most popular item, the Baja favorites are quesadillas and burritos. They are over 1,000 calories,” said Roger Clemens, a professor in the School of Pharmacy and an expert in food, medicine and health. “We could put away 4,000 to 5,000 calories in one sitting.”
Students admit that ordering nutritious food sounds ideal, but that it is not necessarily realistic.
“It’s hard to resist the temptation to get something not healthy,” said Nam Nguyen, a freshman majoring in international relations. “I try to eat fruits and vegetables every day but that’s as far as I go with nutrition.”
USC Hospitality is posed with the problem of providing nutritious options for students, realizing the importance of a healthy diet, yet knowing that they need to provide what will sell.
“It’s really a challenge to be on a university campus when you have a food establishment,” Clemens said. “It’s also a business. On one side you provide food that students will eat and you support your business, or you provide more healthy choices that students won’t eat.”
Still, the community of medical experts on campus agrees proper nutrition is a vital part of the academic life and cannot be ignored.
“Eating well is essential to focus and concentration,” said Patrice Barber, a registered dietitian at the University Park Health Center. “It is important for students to eat well for health but also for the academic part.”
And what raises the stakes of campus nutrition even more is the fact that, off campus, fast food is virtually the only choice for immobile students.
“There aren’t really nutritious options. It would be nice if there was a health food store somewhere like a Trader Joe’s or something,” said Makena Hudson, an undeclared freshman.
Students have found their own ways to eat healthy by forgoing campus dining, but other students say they have pretty much given up.
“It’s pretty difficult when your choices are primarily fast food restaurants,” said Jonathan Choi, a sophomore majoring in public policy, management and planning. “We don’t really have a healthy alternative.”
However, USC Hospitality said it is providing students with plenty of vegetarian, vegan and healthy options at a number of different food venues and they are always looking to improve.
“Literatea and The Lot have quite a few healthy options and alternatives. There are vegan sandwiches and so on,” Klinger said. “But we are looking at ways to even improve on that.”
Students continue to complain about nutrition but nothing seems to be changing. And the reason for that, some say, seems to amount to a classic disagreement between wellness and commerce.
Clemens said the only thing to do is have students speak up and demand better nutrition.
“If the students demand better nutrition, companies would be forced to provide better products, because they want the business,” Clemens said. “What determines that is the students [being] willing to change a lifestyle.”