Photo by Tom Sharrow/

Few high school and college students today are strangers to the concept of the “freshman 15,” the notion that students entering college tend to pick up some extra weight during their first year. According to a new study at Auburn University, however, this is no mere stereotype: 70 percent of college students gain weight by graduation, the average amount being around 12 pounds.1 There are, no doubt, a variety of causes for this surprising statistic, but one, in particular, should stick out to anyone who’s ever done a year or two in dorms: that both sacred and despised institution, the school cafeteria.

Research Shows Widespread Weight Gain

The researchers said that most of the weight put on was sheer body fat and attributed it to a variety of unhealthy habits common among college students. These included late night vending-machine-fueled study benders, long periods of little exercise, and poor options in dining halls.2

A similar study from last year in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that over the course of four years of school, the percentage of overweight or obese students increased by 78 percent, from 23 to 41 percent of all students.3

These studies suggest a serious and sustained problem with student eating habits across the board. Looking to school cafeterias, this makes sense. College students are often provided with all-you-can eat buffets that they can check into only a limited number of times per week. What’s more these meal programs are ferociously expensive, the average plan costing students and families about 4,300 dollars a year. Soaring costs like these could conceivably work as an incentive for students to stuff themselves, as they can only check in 2-3 times a day and every meal comes out to about 8 dollars no matter what they take.

Profit Before Health

Reforming cafeteria programs, making them cheaper and healthier, is not a simple project or one that is likely to be picked by universities any time soon thanks to their centrality as a money-making machine. Notre Dame, for example, calls its food services “a major contributor of revenue to the university’s academic mission.” And that’s no joke: public universities in the 2013-14 school year made $2.3 billion more in revenue from their dining and other auxiliary services than they spent in the same year.4

Go a step further and ask yourself who they’re hiring to run these services and you’ll find names like Chartwells and Aramark—the same powerhouses who’ve been contracted by school districts around the country to systematically feed elementary school kids sugary, processed food for years. Just as in the case of primary schools, addressing the issue of obesity and unhealthy eating on college campuses requires first identifying the profiteers responsible and the administrators turning a blind eye.


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