I’m willing to bet a dining card swipe—maybe even two—that your average Ramen-eating, Red-Bull drinking UCI student couldn’t quantifiably explain to you the correct definition of the phrase “nutrition.”
And who could blame them? This isn’t a vindictive indictment of college students’ stereotypically limited knowledge of healthy eating; it is merely the first place to start when it comes to the discussion on the average college student’s diet.
According to Aramark Marketing Manager Alice Chang and Assistant Director of UCI Nutrition Education Emily Bell, “from speaking with students at UCI, it appears that some students are not sure what ‘proper nutrition’ is, looks like, or what it means. They are bombarded with a lot of messages about eating and dieting and aren’t sure what is good information.”
It seems therein lies the one of the major problems with poor eating habits in young people. Ignorance—and even apathy—towards the concept of proper nutrition is one of the main issues that UCI Dining and on-campus health programs must tackle.
In the face of such pervasive indifference by some, however, programs within UCI Dining “try to provide healthy choices to students when they are dining on campus, help them to identify what those are, and give them the knowledge required to break down barriers [like apathy and unusual schedules],” said Chang and Bell.
Just saying that they will provide support for students is easy enough, but this program in fact has specific strategies and real-life application for students who—one way or another—need to learn about what it takes to make good decisions about the kinds of food they eat.
From learning how to read a food label, to basic cooking skills, and even tips on grocery shopping and budgeting lessons, the health education center provides simple but invaluable information about eating right. They are the things they don’t teach you in lecture, the practical elements of a healthy lifestyle that seem to get lost among the hectic hustle and bustle of a busy college day.
Arguably the biggest element of a college student’s diet is the dining commons which, for some students, is their only source of food during their time living on campus. With something as precious and crucial as student health on the line, it is virtually imperative that the campus dining commons provide the right kinds of meals for students.
To ensure they are doing everything they can to facilitate this healthy food agenda, Chang and Bell explain how “UCI Dining has a strong focus on having healthy options at our dining commons. Our program is called ‘Just For You’ [and] we have identifiers on our display plates that feature these healthier options. They are also shown at the stations as well, and our door is always open to students who would like to work with the chefs to have a special menu that fits their needs.”
This initiative, a great responsibility upon the shoulders UCI Dining, is executed everday by the very people who come into contact with students at every meal—the chefs and staff of UCI’s dining commons.
Meet Ryan Juanarilla, Executive Chef of Pippin Dining Commons in UCI’s very own Middle Earth. Considering the fact that he helps run the largest on-campus eatery, it comes as no surprise that he is able to observe the daily eating habits of hundreds of students and visitors. Chef Ryan makes quite clear the concept behind eating, and the responsibility—to ourselves—that comes with it.
“Every student has a choice in everything they eat,” said Chef Ryan. “We try to make our exhibition stations encompassing. Those who wish to eat healthier have the choice of [having food prepared] with more or less oil, starch, or sugar. Gone are the days where you have to sit and eat what has been served to you. Now you have a choice [in the foods you eat].”
Thus, incorporated in the perk of being an independent college student is also the important necessity of making the right choices when it comes to the food one eats. An area of everyday life often overlooked, eating a fast food burger may seem like the easiest solution to a tightly-scheduled day of lectures, club meetings, and study group sessions. While the UCI Nutrition Education center points to lack of proper knowledge of health as a leading factor in poor eating habits, Chef Ryan points out another leading cause to such complacency.
“We no longer sit down and take the time out to eat with a friend. The personal touch [in the eating experience] is sacrificed. The concept of dining is completely gone; we just eat to eat, to fill our stomachs. But dining with friends helps us build our relationships, and food becomes the center of it, you gather because of it, talk about how it tastes, and how you made it.”
This experience, subtly—even subconsciously—impacts the psyche of the individual. For, according to Chef Ryan, “eating with others creates a pressure to eat healthier; the opinion of others matters to us. It creates balance—people are more conscious about what they’re eating, because if one eats by himself he will choose whatever he wants (even if it’s bad for him).”
Along with this comes the necessity of learning more about different kinds of food, what sources of nutrition they offer, and what is a suitable amount to consume.
“You can educate yourself about what kinds of foods are good for you, and you can influence UCI Food Services by giving suggestions; we do listen. Also if kids see a lot of other people eating healthy, they will follow eventually,” said Chef Ryan.
This type of positive peer pressure can only come with communal eating.
“This is why we want to encourage the dining experience. It is part of our social life, a part of growing up and social building; it hones our social skills,” said Chef Ryan. “These days everyone seems to be in such a rush, they all have rigid schedules and this shortens their time with their friends.”
Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost our value for making healthy eating a priority. But, as Chang and Bell point out, it is only a matter of a little more effort by students to take advantage of the resources made available to them.
“It is not difficult for students to eat healthy,” said Chang and Bell, “some of them just need a few more tools to help them out and show them how easy it can be.”
MADIHA SHAHABUDDIN is a second year Political Science major at the University of California, Irvine.
Photo by Anum Arshad