Campus Dining Fails to Provide Accessible Fresh Food Options

Oberlin College offers five dining locations that each serve a distinct purpose. From the Rathskeller’s classic American diner fare to Stevenson Dining Hall’s dependable pizza, pasta, and seafood, students have a variety to choose from. Despite this plethora of dining hall options, however, access to fresh food is limited. Many students coming from cities already find transitioning to Oberlin difficult. The shock associated with this move points to a larger problem of accessibility and availability of healthy options to smaller communities within the Midwest and on college campuses.

The availability of healthy food on campus varies greatly depending on the time of day. Stevenson closes at 8 p.m., as do Clarity, Heritage Kosher Kitchen, and Umami, while Lord-Saunders Dining Hall closes at 7:30 p.m. These locations are the main places where students can get fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables. DeCafé and Rathskeller are the only dining options open after 8 p.m. Though DeCafé will often have bananas or cucumbers, for the most part it offers prepackaged snack foods. Rathskeller will sometimes have apples or bananas available, but these options are extremely limited and often poor quality. 

Even when there are options available, they are insufficient. Fresh food isn’t always provide to Oberlin students as a first choice in meals. Sometimes the options can even be dangerous. Recent health code violations at the Rathskeller have made many students worried about dining there. Inconsistent hours combined with busy schedules make it difficult for students to find fresh food regularly. This is not a problem that is unique to Oberlin students, but points to a larger problem for college students. The relationship with food on campus shapes how developing individuals learn to interact with food. For students who are just learning how to navigate their adult lives, having consistent access to high-quality, fresh food is essential.

Finding fresh food is a responsibility that ends up falling on the students. Although the City of Oberlin has a few options for fresh food, they are largely inconsistent. IGA, the only grocery store that is easily accessible on foot or by bike, is more expensive than Walmart and ALDI, which are inaccessible without a car since they are about two miles from campus on a pedestrian and bike-unfriendly road. It is also important to mention that, as the only store providing fresh produce within walking distance, the IGA has a monopoly on the market. There is also a local farmer’s market on Saturdays that sells fresh produce, but the information about its location and hours varies based on season. People who don’t have access to vehicles are virtually cut off from access to fresh, inexpensive produce. Co-ops consistently offer healthy food and fresh, local produce, but may be inaccessible due to the work requirement and limited food options. The absence of the Brown Bag Co-op in recent years has increased this disparity. Thanks to student effort, Brown Bag Co-op will be returning for the 2023–2024 school year, and a recent collaboration between Oberlin students and Green EDGE fund is bringing a community fridge to Oberlin in April. 

These steps are crucial in expanding access to fresh food. However, these larger systemic problems cannot be solved by students and community members alone. In order to address these issues on campus, the College could start by making one of the late-night dining locations have broader offerings and more fresh food. The larger issue of the lack of access within the general Oberlin community can be mitigated through intentional efforts to promote student projects like the community fridge. This is an issue without a single solution, but resolution must start with collaboration between the College, the students, and the greater Oberlin community.