Let’s End the Freshman 15: Expanding Healthy Choices in College

Name, Maria Schneider Maria Schneider
19 June 2013
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Three cheers for Spelman College in Atlanta for dropping its expensive athletic program serving relatively few and instead focusing on a fitness effort serving many, if not all, students. Other colleges should follow Spelman’s lead.

Spelman calculated that it was spending close to a million dollars a year supporting various Division III teams that only about 80 students were involved in. Talk about a misplaced allocation of resources. Spelman, as an historically Black women’s college, is the four- year home to the population with some of the worst health indicators in the nation. The health disparities in the African American community are well known and Black women have disproportionately high rates of chronic disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African American women are 1.6 times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to have high blood pressure. When adjusted for age, African American women are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. African American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese compared to other groups in the U.S. – about four out of five African American women are overweight or obese.

Lifelong intellectual interests and pursuits often start in college, why not physical ones as well? Given that the twin obesity and diabetes epidemics are affecting younger and younger people, we should expect our colleges and universities to nourish not only young people’s minds, but also their bodies.

Regrettably, there seems to be little movement in this direction.

As a parent of college-age children, I’ve made the round of higher ed institutions over the past couple of years and know that the dining hall is probably the most popular stop on campus tours. The tour guides spend quite a chunk of time regaling students about what’s in store for them gastronomically: the cafeteria is open all hours, midnight rations are provided throughout finals week, alternative cafes and convenience stores where you can buy snacks and junk food at any hour of the day can be found in strategic locations across campus. “Sloppy Joe Night” is mentioned almost as often as the Ultimate Frisbee team.

The focus is completely on convenience – students can eat at any time of day or night and basically eat whatever they want. Sometimes there would be an off-hand comment about a vegetarian option and my daughter ended up at a small college in the Midwest that features a vegetarian “no fry caf” (which she has never stepped foot in during her two years there).

Although these East Coast and Midwest institutions flaunt their high tech science buildings and digitized libraries, the descriptions of the dining hall seem out of another era – specifically the 1950s diner era. The ivory tower seems to have extended to the cafeteria where – amidst the pizza bread sticks – no one is aware that the country is confronting rapidly rising rates of obesity, a leading cause of life-threatening diseases.

Not once did I hear anything about a school’s effort to have nutritious food offerings or support students who want to eat healthfully. I never saw calorie counts next to food items or learned about any walking clubs or group fitness programs for the athletically disinclined.

The college years are formative and can be powerful in setting the foundation for a healthy adulthood.  Rather than touting round-the-clock dining options and the French fry bar during campus tours, how about a commitment from our institutions of higher learning to end the “freshman 15”?

This essay is an extended version of a Letter to the Editor published by the New York Times.

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