Has the College Cafeteria Become Another Campus ‘Safe Space?’

Last Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled, “College Activists March on the Cafeteria: What Do We Want? Hydroponic Cilantro!” With a headline like that, one could be forgiven for thinking college activists are actually marching on cafeterias demanding hydroponic cilantro.

Don’t worry—they’re not.

They are, however, continuing to push colleges across the country to provide better, healthier food in campus cafeterias which, as the Journal noted, “inspired the University of Houston to spend $6,500 to build two hydroponic grow towers.”

The expense, comprising 0.00002% of the school’s annual budget, hardly seems enough to warrant the story, let alone such a deceptive headline. The general point of the piece was simple and straightforward: College kids want to eat better. Can you blame them?

Well, yes and no.

Millions of Americans survived the college cafeteria despite the notoriously unpleasant experiences many of them had there. They took what they were served, however bland and indistinguishable, without complaint. They were there to work and to learn, not to turn up their noses at food that wasn’t five-star quality. Four years of that probably toughened those folks up, and maybe even made them better people.

Understandably, when they now hear college kids complaining about food and see colleges actually listening, they take it as proof that young millennials are indeed entitled, spoiled snowflakes, and that colleges have become worthless playgrounds run by spineless staff serving up sushi and safe spaces. 

One could be forgiven as well for wanting to put all these kids on a plane to Venezuela where people are currently so hungry they’re killing and eating zoo animals. It’s easy to see these kids as food snobs and snotty “customers” waltzing around campus with the “customer-is-always-right” mentality.

But is that really fair?

When it comes to college cafeteria food, students actually are customers. They pay for those school-provided meals, and frequently, they’re effectively forced to. At many colleges, dorms are intentionally designed without kitchens and the campus cafeteria is the only place that serves food, so students have to buy meal plans and dining hall contracts to eat a decent meal. Often, this is justified for bogus reasons like “social integration.”

Worse, the average student gets charged $4,300 for approximately thirty weeks of college meals, although the average single American spends only $4,000 on food for the whole year. So if colleges deliberately prevent students from saving money by cooking for themselves, actively deny them any kind of free market competition for food choices on campus, and then pocket all the profit from their cafeteria ventures, aren’t students entitled to some say about the food they are served?

By and large, their demands are pretty simple. They’re not asking for foie gras, champagne, and caviar; they want organic produce, local meat, and some gluten-free options. They’re not even asking for pastries and pizza and ice cream, but rather for school dieticians and a corner of campus to grow food in experimental gardens.

That’s not something that the rest of America, with its ever-expanding waistline and myriad health problems, should be criticizing. Today’s college students certainly have their issues, but maybe their desire to eat healthier is one thing worth encouraging and applauding rather than mocking.

As the Journal pointed out, while most students are asking for more kale and carrots, there are a few complaining that the pancake syrup is too bland. Obviously, there’s a big difference between students demanding sweeter tasting sweet stuff and asking for more vegetables.

But there’s a simple solution to the problem. When confronted with food-based complaints from students, maybe college administrators everywhere should act like any loving mother would: if a kid whines that their food isn’t fancy or doesn’t taste good enough, it’s fair to ignore, scold, or send him to bed with no dinner. But if a kid asks for more vegetables or for more nutritious, healthy dinner options, it’s probably a good idea to provide them.

As for students, it’s worth remembering that what usually works on moms probably works on college administrators too: when asking for anything, asking nicely will always go farther than making demands. If only today’s students could learn to apply this lesson to everything else on the menu at college campuses.

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  • Bob

    Good points all. And well said,

  • This has been an issue since at least the ’80s when I went to school: the food plan was a scam run by a bloated crook. And at the end of the semester, there was always a run on the campus snack shop to blow that last remaining pile of cash on your food card to buy your friends beef jerky and soda.