“Don’t give money to Bowdoin or to any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall,” says author Malcom Gladwell, in a recent episode of his podcast, “because every time you support a school that spends its money on amazing food, you’re making it harder … to create opportunities for poor kids.”
In the podcast, Gladwell compares two small, elite liberal arts colleges: Bowdoin and Vassar. He accuses Bowdoin of spending excessive amounts of money on amenities, especially high-quality dining, and less money on financial aid for poorer students. By spending more money on dining, Bowdoin steals richer students from schools like Vassar that don’t spend extra on amenities. Vassar needs these full-paying students to support their large percentage of low-income students on financial aid. Or so Gladwell claims.
Both Bowdoin and unaffiliated third parties have thoroughly criticized Gladwell’s research methods and conclusions. Everyone agrees that we need to ensure all students, regardless of income, have access to higher education. However, many seem skeptical that spending less on dining really solves this problem.
But I am not here to evaluate how Vassar, Bowdoin, or any other college spends their budget, nor am I here to get in the middle of a cat fight between a college and an author. I am here to defend food — more specifically, high-quality campus dining.
While Gladwell does note that students should eat properly, he seems appalled by the (improved) state of campus dining halls. He calls serving an eggplant parmesan pancake, “everything that is wrong with American colleges.” He lumps high-quality food in with other amenities like paying “Bill Clinton $300,000 to come speak” and building a dorm with “all singles that had double beds.”
He also assumes that colleges only spend money on dining to attract wealthier students from “Beverly Hills and Manhattan, who grew up on beautifully ripe avocados and fresh rosemary.”
Obviously, students from more affluent backgrounds have the luxury to care about high-quality dining. However, that does not mean that we should just dismiss dining as a waste of money to please rich kids. I firmly believe that by investing in dining, colleges also invest in their students, education, and the environment.
Sure, adopting gluten-free, paleo, or other fad diets may be a luxury that only wealthier students can afford, but allergens do not discriminate. About 5% of all Americans have some food allergy, and over the last couple of decades, that number has consistently grown.
The top eight food allergens are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. While some of these (i.e. fish and peanuts) may be easier to eliminate, many common foods contain dairy, gluten, and soy, making them more difficult to avoid.
And alternatives are not always cheap. On average, gluten-free products cost over twice as much than their gluten-full counterparts. Dining halls need to put in the money and effort necessary to offer and properly label allergen-free options for these people.
Similarly, schools also have a responsibility to provide options to vegetarian and vegan students. Although we may think of avoiding meat as a luxury of the rich, there’s actually no proven correlation between vegetarianism and total family income.
While vegetarian options don’t necessarily have to cost more, offering enough variety so that vegetarians can eat a full, balanced diet can be more pricey. Doing so requires a level of effort and concern, a level that Bowdoin clearly puts in to their dining.
At Bowdoin, executive chef Ken Cardone explains that they “always have vegan and vegetarian options for hot soups.”
However, schools that view dining as an unnecessary luxury will be less likely to put forth the effort to accommodate students with dietary restrictions. I cannot speak to the vegetarian options offered at Vassar, but in the podcast, a sophomore named Amanda notes “the salad bar always makes me kind of sad.”
Investing in salad bars doesn’t just help the vegetarian and vegan students. If schools make healthy options more convenient and attractive, then students will likely be more opt to choose them.
Take Bowdoin as an example. In Gladwell’s podcast, Bowdoin’s Cardone describes how, “in the center of the salad bar there are several prepared salads, entrée salads, and then you have the make-your-own areas. There’s homemade soups and vegan options. There’s fresh fruits.”
On the other hand, Vassar’s Amanda explains, “Fresh food is atrocious … Strawberries and grapes are like a big deal. You go steal like five cups of that.” Since fresh fruits and vegetables are so unappealing, students usually end up eating “pasta, a very sad meat sandwich that you’re not really sure about, and pizza.”
Not only do such foods tend to have a “laxative effect,” as Gladwell puts it, but they could also hurt students’ grades. Students who eat healthy diets, tend to perform better academically. So by investing in nourishing foods, schools are also investing in their students’ education.
Ultimately, the burden of the low-quality dining options falls on the poorer students. In the podcast, Amanda shrugs off the mediocre food saying, “Worst case scenario, you can get the minimum meal plan and eat out.”
According to her, kids who can still afford dining at Vassar will just eat out, while the kids on financial aid remain stuck on meal plan. They pay the physical and academic consequences of an unhealthy diet. So you have to wonder: Does skimping on healthy options really help low-income students?
Sustainability in dining halls encompasses a number of matters, including supplying recyclable to-go containers, reducing food waste, buying organic (for certain products), and only purchasing fruits and vegetables when they are in season.
Unfortunately, many of these actions cost extra money. Organic products simply cost more, and reducing food waste requires purchasing foods in smaller quantities. While buying in massive bulk may be cheaper, it also increases the risk that food goes unused.
More importantly, schools need educated staff members who are dedicated to juggling all the various components involved in sustainability. For example, Vassar has a whole office dedicated to sustainability. Colleges need to find it in their budget to pay for people and products necessary to ensure that they’re dining halls are environmentally-friendly.