Cooking has always been both a key component of my personal identity and outlet for creative expression in my life. I have fond memories of cooking weeknight dinners with my father in our tiny Connecticut kitchen and the lovely aroma of fresh baked cookies coming from the stove during cold winter months. Cooking brought an element of love, family, and connection that I wouldn't have found elsewhere. Little did I know that my decision to go on a college meal plan would threaten much of the culinary knowledge I've spent my life gaining. 

Many of my peers did not have the same experience growing up. While I considered myself "well-informed" about everything on my plate, many of my friends would choose chicken nuggets in the school cafeteria claiming "I don't know what they're made of, but they sure taste good." In some ways, cooking brought a strong sense of autonomy and pride. I was overjoyed when I could perfect a new recipe or cook something special for my parents and friends. I didn't want these hard-earned lessons to go to waste when I entered the next chapter of my life: college. 

I was horrified, to say the least, when the tour guide at UVM said that all first-year students were required to get a meal plan. Thoughts of overcooked pasta with tomato sauce, wilted spinach, and granola with way too many raisins flooded my conscience. What kind of person would I be if I wasn't allowed to cook? On top of these concerns, I was a vegan! (In my hometown, people often confused vegan with gluten-free, so I didn't have all that much faith in the system.)

After visiting a few colleges (15, to be exact), I found a similar pattern: mandatory freshman meal plans in accordance with on-campus living. No exceptions. In the majority of these schools, the dining contracts were owned by one specific company with a strict set of meal standards. No competition with other vendors means no threat to profits.

To say that the dining options on campus were a "let-down" is to put it gently. I found the food on campus to be horrific, to be completely honest. Either the food was completely devoid of flavor, processed to the point where it shouldn't be considered food, or straight-up unappetizing. On some days, I would walk into the nearest dining hall, realize that the only options I could eat were black beans, arugula, and white bread, and promptly leave. Those were the days I was given no choice but to eat apples, bananas, and whatever I could muster from dilapidated salad bar section of the dining hall. 

Theoretically, I would have gone straight to the nearest community kitchen to prepare meals for myself. But after already spending nearly $3000 a semester for this mandatory meal plan, it wouldn't have made any fiscal sense to purchase my own food and cook meals for myself. I was also limited to grocery stores within walking-distance because UVM did not allow first-year students to have cars on campus. To add insult to injury, the kitchens in UVM's dorms were also a major food safety risk; I often saw fruit flies, moldy food remains, and broken stoves festering inside of them. 

The most maddening thing about this experience was realizing how much knowledge I lost by being separated from my kitchen. I lost many of the techniques and skills I had learned from my parents and even forgot how to make some of my favorite foods because I was so dependent on provisions from the dining halls. I felt like I had lost a part of myself, and one that would only be regained by making my way back into the kitchen. 

I should probably note here that many of my friends were perfectly comfortable eating French fries and chicken nuggets for dinner four times a week. Many of them had someone else prepare food for them for their whole lives. And honestly, if you're a first-year student, you might think not having someone watching over you to make sure you eat your veggies with dinner is the best feeling in the entire world. You might think having access to a dining hall gives you the "freedom" to choose what you want to eat, but what kind of "freedom" does that give you when you're kicked off campus and have no clue how to make scrambled eggs? 

And I get it. I get that as a college student, you might not have the time to cook for yourself every night or designate time to meal prep for the week. For many parents, purchasing an unlimited college meal plan for their student gives some peace-of-mind in knowing that their student will be able to eat. If you're a student, you might like having the convenience of walking into a dining hall and having hot food ready for you. But what happens after college, when your inability to cook for yourself means that you don't get to eat? 

Moreover, what happens when you don't have the luxury of an open, omnivorous diet? After interviewing several UVM students, I began to recognize how incredibly lucky I was to have a dietary preference out of choice. Many others I encountered, with conditions ranging from allergies to irritable bowel syndrome, said that the structure of UVM's dining halls left them nervous about what was on their plates and what was on the surfaces of dining hall tables. They reported several occasions where dining hall staff could not answer questions about ingredients or potential hazards- which sends up red flags about more than just food safety protocols. 

Even in cases where students were able to choose their dietary preferences, such as becoming vegetarian, kosher, vegan, or alike, there are still numerous hurdles to finding consistent access to food on campus. For $3000 a semester, no one should have to choose between proper nutrition, satisfaction, and food quality. And moreover, no one should be put into a situation where they feel obligated to pay for a service that does nothing but harm in the long run. 

Getting to move off campus and away from the corporate nonsense of Sodexo and UVM Dining was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Not only is my food budget dramatically lower than the cost of my meal plan, but I am able to prepare foods that are palatable, satisfying, and most importantly, bring me more joy. Although college meal plans might work for some people, they pose an immense threat to vital food traditions and can pose significant challenges to safe, consistent food access. Moving forward, there should be significant efforts made to ensure that students have choice and full-transparency in deciding if they want a college meal plan. That will also inherently mean that infrastructure needs to be updated to support those students who opt to cook for themselves- keeping stoves clean, providing waste bins, ensuring that community members use the space in a respectful way, and alike. 

It will undoubtedly require some flexibility on the part of distributors, students, and staff- but changing the meal plan system is something that absolutely needs to happen. After all, shouldn't we be nourishing something more than just profits?