Inconsistency in Dining Services Causes Harm to Students

Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of disordered eating behaviors. 

My day goes like this: I wake up and go to class before going through the numerous activities, jobs, and social events I’ve committed to and love. I end up not being able to wait in the Rathskeller line, but I promise myself to stop by Stevenson Dining Hall after class. Between those points, I have to spend a meal swipe on a bottle of cranberry juice because I’ve run out of Flex Points. To conserve the number of meal swipes I have, I skip lunch, saying that I want to get juice later in the day and hope to get a slice of salmon from Lord-Saunders Dining Hall. I run into a friend who explains that she’s been sick all day and blames the Umami she ate last night, describing the gray meat she cut into and the nausea she’s felt for hours. Suddenly, stopping for dinner gets taken off the list of things to do. Another promise is made that I will eat eventually, but the when and where get buried under a textbook I am reading. It is only when I lie down and reach to turn off my lamp that I finally realize that all I’ve had to eat was a packet of saltine crackers and cranberry juice. 

It’s not that I don’t want to eat. When I go home from Oberlin, I find myself eating and thinking about food consistently and happily. I was never a big eater in my family and have been struggling with weight loss all my life, but I have never felt such a lack of control as when I am eating at Oberlin — a lack of control regarding what I can put into my body and the knowledge that the food on my plate could make me sick. Even the food I see boiling in a pot or cooking on the grill at the Rathskeller is tainted by the thought of “what if it’s expired?” — because it has been before — or “what if it’s not cooked all the way?” It’s hard to try and see every meal differently when it’s the same methods that are used to make it over and over again. This fear slowly spread and took over my mind, and at one point, I could not eat at Stevie for a month. Whenever my friends beg me to eat, I grimace because it means I have to force something down my throat or risk my health. Or worse, I feel the shame of concerned looks I get when my clothes look looser on my frame. It feels like I’ve lost control of how I eat and, in turn, how my body functions and looks. In the winter, I went to Egypt and ate some of the best food of my life. Not only did I feel good, but I was also proud of eating every meal and even returning for seconds. I gained 20 pounds. By the end of February, I had lost it all. Again, it is not that I don’t want to eat. I remember the story the Review published detailing health code violations. I remember the rotten fruit that I pulled out of the DeCafé refrigerator. All of a sudden, I’m not that hungry. The days go on, and my appetite grows smaller because the quality of campus food makes it hard for me to eat. 

It isn’t just an Oberlin thing. Many colleges don’t have appetizing food that students consistently want to eat. I also acknowledge the privilege of being able to have consistent food provided to me in the first place. As college students, we are privileged to have many options for food. I, if nothing else, feel grateful that I get to be in a space where I don’t have to ask myself if food will be on the table. This makes me feel worse when I can’t force myself to eat any of it. My parents, who spend thousands of dollars for me to go here, often beg me to eat — to put on just a little bit of weight and just try eating something from the dining hall. No matter how much I criticize myself for looking thinner or how guilty I feel when I call my parents and tell them I’m going out to get food, it doesn’t change the facts. I can’t convince my body to feel anything but nausea when I remember cutting into chicken at Stevie and seeing pink. And even when I find myself hungry, it’s easy to spend a meal swipe on a latte and a muffin and convince myself that it’s filling because it’s packaged and safe. My brain can convince itself that taking a bite won’t make me sick. 

I wish there was an easy way to fix the quality of Oberlin’s food. So much of the food we eat is shipped in from all over, and its quality is at the mercy of the season and the delivery time. But the food in crates waiting for transport is the same food students complain about sitting in the DeCafé fridges long after expiration. The AVI staff workers are tasked with serving the entire Oberlin community, and every day, I am grateful and thank them for their hard work. It’s the responsibility of AVI Foodsystems, not the job of the underpaid and under-appreciated staff workers, to ensure that the food provided is up to code and fit to be served. 

No solution will be easy. From the wide variation of what qualifies as a meal swipe to the fact that the Rat has three health code violations, different campus dining locations all have problems that require individual solutions. But I want a day when I can trust what is in front of me and eat it without fear of sickness or pain. And that starts by asking how food is made on campus and if we are doing everything to ensure our food is safe and healthy.