UT food desert feeds unhealthy eating habits

Laura Hallas

College is a formative period for a lot of reasons. It turns students into adults capable of doing adult things like living on their own, managing a budget and eating their vegetables.

But what happens when eating cheap isn’t healthy?

UT and parts of North and West campus are considered by the United States Department of Agriculture to be a food desert, “a low-income area where a significant number or share of residents is far from a supermarket.” For an urban area like Austin, that means being more than a mile from a significant source of healthy foods, like HEB or Whole Foods. 

Considering student living, it makes sense that a university could be a food desert. We vacate our dorms and apartments for several months at a time, taking our (parents’) money from grocery stores. This deters them from opening near campus. Students are then left with small, convenient store type food vendors that largely sacrifice healthy food for cheap food. In the face of these conditions, students’ odd hours and low budgets force our hand toward poor dietary choices. 

“The markets are convenient obviously, so you try to utilize them as best as you can, but it’s kind of like making eating healthy even more of a challenge,” nutrition freshman Adelyn Yau said. “I feel like if it were cheaper, when people looked at their alternatives, all of the sudden they are a little more comparable.”

The lack of healthy alternatives is particularly harmful to freshmen. Most live on campus and don’t have access to cars, limiting food choices to those within walking distance. When looking to eat between classes or study sessions, walking even a block can be a time drain. Furthermore, living on campus requires a meal plan, so there is some degree of pressure to buy food from say, a Jester convenience store, to avoid wasting money. 

Even among older students who have more mobility, the lack of fresh food nearby can be problematic. One of the unfortunate realities of fresh food is that it spoils quickly. Even when a weekly trip to HEB is possible, there’s no guarantee that produce will last through the week. Many popular foods like berries, avocados and bananas can spoil within a few days.

The University held its first farmers market just last month, offering an ideal combination of fresh, local and cheap food. The event offered educational instruction on local, environmentally-conscious growing as well. Unfortunately, these one-off events do not amount to a long term solution. 

A more effective approach would be to tweak prices and selection to encourage healthy eating on campus. The University could subsidize healthier take-out options, like salads, and increase healthy food selection. Doing so would give healthy options a fighting chance in students’ wallets and stomachs. We establish life-long eating habits during our time in college, but the choices should be our own, not limited by the food around us. 

Hallas is a Plan II freshman from Allen. Hallas is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @LauraHallas.