How Was the Food at Your College?

I’ve continued to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast, and the latest episode–Food Fight–raised some questions for me.

The episode uses two universities, Vassar and Bowdoin, to demonstrate a key shortcoming in American higher education (in Gladwell’s opinion). Here’s the main comparison:

  • 23% of Vassar’s students are Pell Grant recipients (as Gladwell says, these are “poor smart kids”) and the net tuition for lower-middle class students is $5,600. Also, importantly, the food at Vassar isn’t good.
  • 14% of Bowdoin’s students are Pell Grant recipients and the net tuition for lower-middle class students is $8,900. The food at Bowdoin is excellent.

Gladwell focuses heavily on the food at these two universities. To summarize his point, Vassar has lots of poor smart kids, but their food budget suffers as a result. Bowdoin doesn’t seem to care as much about poor smart kids, instead diverting funds to create amazing food for its students.

I appreciate Gladwell’s intentions here. The idea that poor kids deserve as good of an education as rich kids hits home with me, as does the idea that having a diversity of students is good for everyone in higher education. My family wasn’t poor when I went to college, but we certainly weren’t rich either. My university, Washington University in St. Louis, did a good job of working with us so I could afford to go to school there. And the food was pretty good.

What’s wrong with have a diversity of interesting food options at universities? Can’t that be a part of the educational process, just as sports, study abroad, and social activities are? After all, the things we put in our bodies have a big impact on our cognitive abilities.

Listening to the episode made me wonder if Gladwell was picking on the wrong aspect of Vassar’s budget. How big of an expense is food at a university?

I poked around online and found some charts showing annual spending by universities (though not the universities in question here). Here’s an example from the University of Montana:


Granted, I’m sure this varies from school to school, but it gives us a starting point. Food is part of “Student Services,” which is listed as 6.2%. Montana’s total budget in 2013 was about $400 million, so food is some portion of $24.8 million. Compared to some of the other expenses, it doesn’t seem like that much.

Isn’t it possible for a university to have good food AND be financially welcoming to poor smart kids?

What do you think? Does university food matter? Is there a fallacy in Gladwell’s argument?

6 thoughts on “How Was the Food at Your College?”

  1. First of all, not only did I get the Pell Grant but also a lottery scholarship with academic competitiveness bonus when I went to the University of TN. My family could barely afford a laptop for me to take, much less any college expenses. Because of the extra money from my parents’ employer, I was able to afford the best apartment style housing.

    For the first couple years, I had plenty of time to cook and rarely ate the university food. As time went on, I noticed that I had less time to cook and was eating out more, which was taking up most of my work money. So for my last year, I asked my family to contribute to a meal plan instead of giving me birthday and Christmas presents.

    I mostly ate at the Southern Cafeteria in my residence hall, which offered fresh made comfort food choices, including vegetarian options, and a side salad with each meal. Regularly eating that food made a big difference in my overall health, especially the salads. I was sleeping better, had more energy, had less stress, and just plain felt better! I finished assignments earlier, did better on tests, and was more involved with clubs like the board game club!

    In my experience, the food did make a difference. I wish I had tried to get a meal plan sooner, even though the expense would be difficult to overcome. At least I was able to pass that wisdom on to my sister when she graduated high school.

    • Brent and Daisy: Thanks for sharing your experience. I really like how you were able to see the connection between a healthy, diverse food selection and your performance at school. I’m curious why Gladwell didn’t make that connection.

  2. My college had ok food. I went to UW-Whitewater, a mid-sized state school. I think this question becomes totally different when you talk about private vs public universities. Our school was somewhat hamstrung by state purchasing requirements. The dining halls at my school were run by an outside company, Chartwells. They run the dining halls at quite a few schools around the country, and also a lot of K-12 school lunchrooms.

    Anyway, the food was fine. It wasn’t gourmet, but it was good. We had a few different options, some of which were just franchises of national chains. Others were cafeterias, or lunch counter sort of places.

    I think this would be an interesting issue to hear an analysis from a different podcast – Freakonomics. I’d be interested to hear what the economic argument would be for better food vs more assistance for low-income students, and whether they are really opposed.

    I think that this discussion might be completely different if we were talking about public universities instead of private. Public university tuition is a fraction of the cost of private because of the support given by the state. I paid less for my entire degree than some of my friends paid per semester at nearby private schools, so the cost of food was a much higher percentage of my total expenses than it was for my private school friends.

    • Adam: That’s a great point about differentiating public and private institutions. I’d also be curious to hear what Freakonomics has to say about the subject.

  3. There are several fallacies in his argument, but the one I take issue with the most strongly is the assumption that students could/should be regularly eating on campus at all.

    As a “REALLY poor smart kid” who kept a tight budget of $30/month for food while putting myself through college, I can tell you that the only way to accomplish that level of frugality is to go to the grocery store to buy ingredients ($1 per day) rather than going to the student union cafeteria to buy meals ($6 per meal).
    …Meanwhile, one of my roommates had a $2700/semester campus meal plan, and only went to the grocery store when she wanted to buy wine.

    The counter-argument to this ^ claim is that good students don’t have time to go grocery shopping and/or cook their meals, because they are busy studying and attending class. As someone who held two work-study jobs, competed on the Division 1 Track & Field team, and still graduated with a 4.0 GPA, I think I can say that grocery shopping fit just fine into my schedule without putting a damper on my studies.

    Bottom line from my perspective:
    – It is great that campuses offer dining options.
    – It is even better if they provide diverse, tasty, healthy options.
    – It is optimal if they try to provide all of the above at a truly affordable price.
    – But if you’re actually “poor” (or even if you’re not!), you need to find a realistic alternative to the budget-breaking campus meal plan: Go find a grocery store instead.

    End rant.

    • Thanks for sharing your story as well, Sarah. I’m impressed and amazed you were able to eat for $30 a week–I now realize I took my meal plan for granted.


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