Tuition or Dinner? The Socioeconomics of Student Dining

Written by Varun Hukeri.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.

On campus at the University of Texas, finding a meal should be the least of students’ worries. If they need a quick bite to eat after class or simply want to grab lunch, there’s a bountiful number of options. From various chains on campus to a line of restaurants along The Drag, the possibilities seem endless for a hungry student looking for a convenient and relatively affordable meal. For freshmen especially, access to Dine in Dollars and the availability of dining halls provide an easy opportunity for stress-free eating as they acclimate to their first year on campus. Unfortunately, while there is a numerically large number of culinary options, the food environment around and on the university typically incentivize unhealthy diets. Additionally, a combination of the college life, a lack of awareness about nutrition, and the socioeconomics of the campus and in the city of Austin all create a situation where student life perpetuates food insecurity and unhealthy lifestyles.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around 20% of American households battle with food insecurity, or the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. This issue is proliferating across college campuses, especially at a time when more socioeconomically diverse populations are attending college and the price of attendance is at an all-time high. The emergency food services network, Feeding America, reported in 2014 that 10% of its 46 million clients were students and found in a survey that 30% of students have faced the ultimatum of food or educational expenses. For college students, many of whom are living away from home for the first time and are thus thrown into the confusing world of independence and adulthood, how they approach food security and interact with their diets is important. UT and Austin, in particular, have dealt with the “food desert” problem, which is defined as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” Parts of North and West campus, as well as surrounding areas in the city, have been considered food deserts, and despite some progress over the last few years, the situation is not as optimal for students as it ought to be.

The economics of on-campus dining is constructed in such a way that large contracts are awarded only to the most profitable chains, ultimately prioritizing space for unhealthy fast-food restaurants. Furthermore, the increasing value of retail space on and around campus, combined with the fact that student populations are not in the vicinity year-round disincentivizes dining and shopping options. Although the construction of a Target center on 21st and Guadalupe Street has been a welcomed change, the market trend disfavors the priorities that students actually care about. Combine this with the relative immobility of students, meaning that a substantial number of students don’t have cars nor the most convenient means to buy groceries for healthier meals. This is especially true for underclassmen, although older students also face these types of issues.

Food deserts also have a disproportionate impact on low-income students, and this can create a food trap for students who rely solely on unhealthy foods as their main source of nutrients and calories. Because the general structure of food spots on campus is built around small vendor-style spaces for large fast-food chains, health is often secondary to cost, which can put low-income students in the problematic situation of having to compromise a healthy lifestyle because of the sheer fact that such a lifestyle is financially unsustainable. For example, although it may be more convenient to buy low-cost foods such as dry ramen noodles as opposed to a salad, this trade-off has a disproportionately negative impact on health in the long term. Although there are some ways to create student-friendly budgets or low-cost alternatives such as meal prep and home-cooking, it is still important to address the intersection of space and economics in the creation of problems for students who may not possess the same advantages and are thus placed in positions that make them even more vulnerable to food insecurity and the food desert problem. 

Despite these structural and socioeconomic issues that impact the culinary experiences of students, there are methods for improving the situation. Firstly, it’s important to prioritize nutrition education by raising awareness of healthy food options and the way to affordably acquire such options. For example, students can access weekly menus from UT Housing and Dining that provides important nutritional information. On-campus dining does have healthy options, but often, they are pushed to the wayside by large chains thriving on brand recognition and a large customer base. Instead, opening conversations about food insecurities with vulnerable populations, as well as advertising better options on and around campus is a good first start. Furthermore, how we think about space and who gets to occupy that space is important. Yes, the market incentivizes traps where the only available options are filled up by cheap but unhealthy dining options, but creative and innovative solutions to food insecurity and food deserts can be accomplished. Ultimately, prioritizing the needs of students should be paramount for the university and the community, and systemic changes will be required to create an environment where students, especially vulnerable populations, should not have to worry about finding affordable and healthy food.

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