Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Health Food Hard to Find at College

(Star Tribune) Minneapolis Community and Technical College makes a point of its pride in one characteristic of its students: "the most diverse student body in the state of Minnesota."

This, indeed, is something to be proud of.

But while the program options and extracurricular activities at MCTC might accurately represent its rare level of diversity, there is one glaring exception: the food.

On one of my first days as a student at MCTC, stomach rumbling, I wandered into the cafeteria to find something for lunch. I was appalled at what I found: an MCTC take on, essentially, Subway, Pizza Hut and McDonald's.

An avid healthful- and organic-food enthusiast and a vegetarian, I was not in the slightest interested in any of these options. I wandered over to the drink cooler and found a coconut water.

This was, literally, one of maybe three items, drinks included, that fit into my healthful-eating lifestyle in the entire MCTC cafeteria.

Disappointed and dejected, I paid for my coconut water (marked up, might I add, to about twice what it would be at a grocery store), and decided to wander upstairs to "Josephine's Café," the coffee stand/café marketed, as far as I could tell, as the quaint, healthy alternative to the cafeteria.

I was pretty amazed at what I found.

Besides a bunch of 1,000-plus-calorie vanilla-caramel-mocha-supreme type coffee drinks, über-frosted pastries, and a shelf with bags of Doritos and the like, there wasn't much available.

A couple of premade sandwiches on what appeared to be Wonder-bread looked straight out of a gas station. And besides a veggie cup with carrots, celery and ranch dressing, the most healthful-looking thing I could spot was a cooler full of Odwalla smoothies.

While I'm a fan of carrots and juice, it's hardly enough to satisfy a hardworking student in class for a day as long as mine (a couple of days a week I'm at school for almost eight full hours).

My alternative? Ever since that disappointing discovery, I've been trekking over to the Wedge Natural Foods Co-op on my breaks from class (driving or biking distance from school, but barely walking distance, especially during frigid Minnesota winter months).

If time doesn't allow, I stop there on my way. No refrigerated foods will work, so I stock up on apples, nuts and other shelf-stable items my nonhealthful-eating guy friends lovingly refer to as "bird food." I love the Wedge, but it's hardly an ideal situation.

I shouldn't have to avoid the food at school like the plague in order to stay true to my habits. I'm not even saying all the food needs to be organic (although that would be excellent), but rather nutritious, healthy, local if possible, and diverse.

And maybe not even all of the food needs to be those things -- I'm sure some kids would be disappointed to lose their fries and burgers. But some of it should be.

I can't possibly be alone in this. With a school as diverse as MCTC, in the middle of an urban center, I know there are like-minded people there. I often run into them at the Wedge.

I would wager that not only would healthier, local and even organic options at school be a positive thing for students' health and well-being, but a lucrative endeavor for the school as well.

Because, here's the thing: I mentioned that the coconut water was priced at about twice what I could have bought it for if I had trekked over to the Wedge. But I bought it anyway.

Given the option, it is a lot more convenient to purchase food and drinks in the building where you already have to be. MCTC already has that advantage over other local businesses. Offering better quality food would quickly pay for itself, and then some.

In addition to its lack of healthier "American" food, it's disconcerting to me that with a population as ethnically diverse as MCTC's, few of these cultures are represented gastronomically.

A lot of students would be happy to eat an East African lunch or snack on some plantains from a Puerto Rican stand. If MCTC was really as proud of their students' diversity as they claim, maybe they would do more to represent it and make those students feel at home.

MCTC is in the process of a multimillion-dollar renovation of its student center. A new place to eat is inevitable, so why not add some healthier, more diverse options?

A place where students could buy an organic apple, a sandwich on whole-wheat bread, a tempeh melt, or even some injera bread and lentils.

MCTC, it's time to make a choice: Start embracing your diverse and progressive student population, or continue watching their dollars fly into the pockets of surrounding businesses.
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Claire Taubenhaus, of Minneapolis, is a singer and student.