After only a short amount of time on campus, I can already understand the issue of food at UConn. As maligned the meals may be, though, taste quality is not the problem. Rather, I am referring to the healthiness and overabundance of food on campus. The average meal plan includes unlimited access to buffets, flex passes that many use to get extra late-night snacks and points to use all around campus. For those who like to pay for their food, there are also a plethora of stores in the Student Union, Storrs Center, and around North Campus. While there are some healthy options among these, most are the common sugar-laden stuff. With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that the phrase “Freshman 15” came to be.
Contrast this with cigarette smoking. While there are options and some students certainly do partake, it is a world’s away from the state of food. To no surprise, cigarettes are not free or readily available to students; they can only be bought for high prices at specific stores near campus. Furthermore, smoking spots are relegated to specific, labeled parts of campus.
The defensive tone of the previous paragraph aside, I do not disagree with any of these decisions. Smoking has been shown time and time again to have be addictive and have a long-term negative impact on users. Because of both of these factors, even users who start believing they can limit themselves and stay healthy may not realize the power of addiction. I do not dispute any of that. However, overeating certain foods has also been shown to be addictive (albeit, in different ways) and result in similar or worse health effects.
Given all of this, why is smoking implicitly and explicitly looked down upon while food gets a free pass? Obviously, they are different in some fundamental ways. No one needs to smoke to stay alive, but everyone needs to consume food to stay healthy. Even so, though, there is a similarly large difference between healthy foods containing the nutrients we need and the garbage that is ever-present on the shelves of convenience stores, in every fast food establishment, and even in the UConn dining halls. In addition, while both cigarettes and certain foods are understood to be bad for health, only cigarettes are demonized to the extent they are. Some lesser-quality sources like McDonald’s have taken the fall for their unhealthiness, but food - especially sugary, fatty food - is still everywhere.
Obesity is now more common than smoking among Americans. Despite this, though, legislation seems to be lagging, ineffective, or both. Part of the reason lies in lobbying by those who have a stake in people eating more food than they should. Public opinion does not seem to be in favor of regulation in this style either, though. When Michael Bloomberg was still mayor of New York City, he tried to enact a ban on sugary soft drinks. While part of the issue behind this bill (and why it ultimately failed in court) lies in its limited scope, the idea that it would at least force consumers to consider their sugar and food intake seems noble enough. Even in its goal, though, much of the public was outraged, with many considering the choice of drink size - and by extension, sugar intake - to be a personal decision.
Just like smoking, though, it is reductionist to look at eating habits as choices in which all people making those decisions are well informed and rational. In fact, the intake of food and its effects are even more obscured to the average person than cigarettes, what with constant warnings and statistics discouraging smoking. The health impacts of certain foods are not nearly as clear; hard-to-parse labeling, ignorance about food addiction and lack of portion control are all too common.
The exact route that policy should take in policing food is unclear. Something more must be done. Steps must be taken to keep the misguidance of the food industry in check and the health of people in mind. Overabundance of food may seem like a silly “first world problem,” but it is a very real threat.
Peter Fenteany is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.