Meal Plans Allow Students To Demand Fresh and Sustainable at No Cost

Jim Prevor - Comments and Analysis

What follows is a response from Jim Prevor pertaining to this month’s research perspective. That article can be found here.

Jim Prevor - Comments and AnalysisIt has been said that democracy tells us what most people want, whereas capitalism tells us what people want most. When thinking about university foodservice, the comment is worth keeping in mind. One would think that what college students prefer while at university would set a powerful trend going forward as they move into adulthood. After all, we know food habits are stubborn things, and so we would expect once established, these habits are likely to stay with people as they move on from university to single life, married life and family life.

In college, most students confront meal-purchasing situations they will rarely encounter again in their lives. Those students on meal plans — which is most of what we are talking about here — have had their food prepaid. This allows the students to both request -— even demand — things from their university foodservice programs without any financial consequences. If they want cage-free eggs, organic produce or fair trade coffee, they can make that clear to the administration. Certainly, within the choices presented, they can choose based on whatever criteria — environmental, ethical, culinary — they may wish to utilize. If there is any cost to any of this, it is obscured and will show up in a higher overall cost of a meal plan a year later.

In contrast, people outside of universities are confronted with specific choices most of their lives. Do I buy the organic produce and pay more, or conventionally grown and pay less? Do I buy the fair trade chocolate and pay more, or do I buy conventional chocolate and pay less? And, for many, the choices translate into other choices. Do I buy the ethically sourced product and be late with the rent this month? Do I skimp on the organics so I can enroll Julie in gymnastics this semester? On and on.

In college, most students confront meal-purchasing situations they will rarely encounter again in their lives.

By reading the consumer media, one can easily come away with the conclusion that Americans are obsessed with eating everything local, organic, ethically sourced, sustainable and what not. And, indeed, these may be highly effective marketing angles, as they may well express the aspirations of consumers. But it is sometimes useful to take a reality check and remember fresh produce consumption is flat. The largest grocer in America is Wal-Mart; the fastest growing grocers are deep discounters, Aldi and Lidl; and the poster boy for all of today’s trends, Whole Foods, has a market share of about 1.2 percent of the U.S. grocery market! And Amazon, well it represents about one-fifth of 1 percent of the U.S. grocery market.

Some of this attention is about something more than money; it is about culture. New York Times columnist David Brooks attracted more than a little attention when he wrote an article addressing class divisions in America, claiming there are “informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.” What could represent these divisions, Brooks explained, was that food was a big part of it:

Recently, I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly, I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Brooks may have chosen a poor example. It is not clear Italian names on sandwiches are all that intimidating. But he also made a larger point:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

Which is another way of saying that to fit in among certain circles, one has to at least feign an interest in veg-centric eating, ethical sourcing, transparency, community-building, cooking, “know your farmer” and food source, and ethnic cuisines.

Culture, of course, shifts and there is no guarantee that what is perceived as upscale and sophisticated today will be thought of that way in 10 years; even more, it is not clear what percentage of the population will actually buy into these values. Add to this the reality of choices that lead many consumers to decide that saving for a trip to Disney World is more important than getting drumsticks from free-range chickens and we see the conundrum.

We may know what most college students want, but until they are actually paying the bill, we can’t know what they want most.