Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

GoYeo Meal Plan Harms Student Health

Photo by Erin Koo, Photo Editor
Chips are one of many snack options in DeCafé

On Thursday, Dec. 23, 2023, the last day of my first semester at Oberlin, I walked into DeCafé and bought four packs of peanut M&M’s, two cans of Red Bull, and a bag of kettle corn. This was not a spontaneous splurge. For the past several weeks, I had been stockpiling junk food just as Yeobie prepares for winter. As many Oberlin students, I pay $4,772 to subscribe to the GoYeo meal plan. This plan gives me access to 420 meal swipes and 200 Flex Points. If I wanted to spend all of these meal swipes on actual meals, I would need to eat four meals a day, every day, for the entire semester. That’s just too many meals. So, I spent my excess swipes on snacks from DeCafé. 

The problem is that almost every food item available to purchase with meal swipes is unhealthy. From bags of cotton candy to king-size Butterfingers, the shelves of DeCafé are loaded with sugar and God-knows-what other chemicals and preservatives. Even the more meal-like options, such as instant ramen bowls and bags of salted nuts, are hardly the pinnacle of nutritional excellence. The only truly healthy option is the limited selection of fresh fruits. 

The detrimental health effects of sugar and processed foods are well-documented. Some even argue that eating too much sugar is as unhealthy as smoking or excessive drinking. We are, of course, all adults and free to make our own dietary decisions based on our personal circumstances and how much we like peanut M&M’s. My intention in writing this piece is not to shame anyone for what they eat; rather, it is to shame the system. 

The Oberlin meal plan system is wasteful and unhealthy to the point of immorality, and like so many wasteful and immoral things, its existence is motivated by profit. By forcing us to pay for more meals than we can eat and only allowing us to spend the excess on overpriced junk food, the school can siphon a significant portion of the money we pay for the meal plan into its own coffers. Why does a school that charges over $60,000 a year need to squeeze extra money out of its own students? I have no idea. But what I do know is that by making us choose between buying unhealthy snacks and flushing money down the toilet at year’s-end, Oberlin is encouraging us to eat more unhealthily than we otherwise would. 

This system is especially harmful to students from middle- and low-income families. I am personally fortunate enough that I could accept the loss of the 70 meal swipes I still had at the end of last semester with a mere grumble. But many students cannot simply shrug off the loss of the equivalent of around $750. These students may feel obligated to spend all of their meals so as not to waste their families’ hard-earned money, putting them at even greater health risk. Moreover, while I can supplement my snack food with healthier items from IGA, other students may not have that luxury. By offering almost exclusively unhealthy snack foods, Oberlin has created a snack food desert, which, like all food deserts, harms low-income students most of all.

The meal plan isn’t just bad for students; it’s bad for the environment. Nearly every food item available for purchase in DeCafé, with the exception of fresh fruit, comes in a disposable plastic container. Because plastic recycling is rarely legitimate, all of that plastic most likely goes straight into the landfill no matter what bin you throw it in. 

Moreover,giving students more food than they can eat encourages food waste, and due to the dearth of compost bins on this campus, most of that wasted food also goes straight to the landfill. 

If the College should wish to remedy the problem with its meal plan, there are several steps it could take. Most obviously, it could make cheaper plans with fewer meals available to all students. It could allow students to purchase some of the more healthy “retail only” items with meal swipes. There is no reason to forbid the use of a meal swipe on a $2.49 can of black beans when that same meal swipe can be spent on a $3.59 bag of cotton candy.

It could increase the variety of available snack food. Having some cheese sticks or baby carrots available for purchase could mitigate the health issues the meal plan causes. It could also allow us to exchange our remaining meals at the end of a semester for charitable donations to famine relief, in addition to the existing flex donation program. That way, instead of being forced to buy unhealthy foods they don’t really want, students could help save the lives of people desperately in need of that food. 

If the College is unwilling to alter how the meal plan works, there are several things you can do to avoid the health risks that the school is imposing on you without letting yourself be taken advantage of. 

If you find that you have excess meal swipes at the end of the year, rather than stockpiling junk food like I did, you can buy nuts, ramen bowls, and macaroni and cheese and donate them to the Oberlin Community Services food pantry located at 500 E. Lorain St. If you want to donate but don’t want to walk that far, feel free to contact me at [email protected], and I’ll drop the food off for you. 

The Oberlin Student Cooperative Association offers healthier dining options, although membership comes with other obligations. If you are interested in joining, you can add yourself to the waitlist. 

Oberlin now offers a second meal plan available to all students, the Gold Meal Plan. This costs the same as the GoYeo Plan but comes with 315 meal swipes and 600 Flex Points. Although this plan shares many of GoYeo’s issues, you will at least be able to spend more of your money on the healthier items that are “retail only.”

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