Craving cheap, healthy food on UA campus
Over 6,600 undergraduate students live in residence halls on campus each year, and many more live within close proximity to the UA. Of these students, a great many commute to class by foot, bicycle or public transportation. For them, access to healthy, affordable food without a car is limited at best.
The university prides itself on its “alternative” meal plan, which differs from most schools’ single cafeteria option. Spread across campus are various restaurants, fast-food hubs and U-Marts where students can buy food with or without a prepaid meal plan. There are several meal plans to choose from, with the “three meals a day” option costing $3,500. The benefits students get from signing up for prepaid meal plans are a five percent savings on purchases and a waiving of the Arizona sales tax.
Although often crowded, on-campus eateries are convenient in location and timeliness. However, convenience is only one of three important categories when it comes to ideal college food options; the other two categories of affordability and nutritional quality are lacking in our unions.
Most students live in their dorm rooms for 33 weeks per year. Given the amount of the typical meal plan, many of these students can budget about $16 a day for food. With the prices at on-campus eateries such as Bagel Talk, Cellar Bistro and Sabor, students could easily go over their $16 per day budget. Fifty dollars a week at the grocery store, on the other hand, could feed most anyone comfortably.
Many “affordable” eateries on campus are greased up, salted-out fast-food classics; places like Chick-fil-A and Panda Express only differ from other links in the fast-food chain by their marked-up prices.
The only option on campus for purchasing in-dorm foods like cereal and milk are U-Marts. These are stores where a limited, highly over-priced selection of foods line shelves in the student unions. The majority of products in these markets fall into the “junk food” category: chips, candy, soda and Top Ramen. There is a limited selection of produce, a few bananas and apples and some precut vegetables that might last a day or two in a dorm fridge — not exactly the grocery store experience.
The closest big-name grocery store to campus is Safeway — not a place known for low prices, but a reasonable food-buying option nonetheless. From the center of campus, Safeway is 1.4 miles away, or a 28 minute walk, as approximated by Google Maps. My roommate, a couple of friends and I made the journey once while living in the dorms: backpack clad, sunscreened up and with water bottles in hand. It was a Facebook-post-worthy event that took place only once. Lugging food in 110 degree weather for 28 minutes is not a particularly enjoyable task. Forget about lunch meats or dairy surviving the trip.
I now commute to the grocery store on my bicycle. I load as much food into my backpack as will fit, strap some of it onto my bike rack and carry the remainder in grocery bags around my wrists. Each time I shop, I find the urge to assure concerned onlookers, “I’ve done this before.” Even though I am a competitive cyclist and would consider my bike handling to be at a much higher proficiency than the average commuter, the task of bringing a week’s worth of food home in this way is never an easy feat.
Food is a necessity, not a luxury, and students should demand good, affordable options on campus. As fast-food restaurants are in the union to stay, thanks to contracts, it seems that the most promising solution lies in campus-run hot lines and salad bars. If vegetables could be steamed instead of cooked in butter and salad bars could be kept fresh and less costly, huge gains could be made. With its monopoly, it is hard to imagine U-Mart prices becoming reasonable. However the addition of less-costly, healthier bread options, sugar-reduced peanut butter and more fruits and vegetables would go a far way in improving dorm life for many students. If accessibility to grocery stores is the driving force behind the need for some students to have cars, this is an obvious problem on our campus that must be addressed.
- Allison Alterman is a sophomore studying creative writing. Follow her @allie_303