In early September, I walked into Ferris Booth Commons, one of Columbia’s three dining halls, for the first time. The availability of the food immediately felt overwhelming, and it was in that moment that I became privy to the “all-you-care-to eat” policy of Columbia University Dining services.
What did I choose when offered all the food I cared to eat? Well, I didn’t really choose anything, because I got everything from grilled cheese and chips with salsa to a pastrami sandwich with soup to hummus and a salad. Then I got seconds. Then thirds. I only began to feel uneasy when I finished my half-eaten third serving.
I can understand why “all-you-care-to-eat” is normal for many Columbia students with meal plans. It’s the same policy that they’ve experienced since the New Student Orientation Program. But this is a very American college norm. During my first two years of college, I studied at Sciences Po, a political science institution in Paris. We had one dining hall, where we each got a single meal. This meal always included a starter, then a vegetarian, fish, or meat main dish, followed by dessert.
This isn’t to say that I think Columbia should directly emulate Sciences Po. I do, however, think that Columbia should take responsibility for its current policy’s wastefulness and instead nudge students toward a new food culture.
Encouraging less wasteful food consumption is difficult when the students have so little stake in its preparation. When I think back to the home-cooked meals of my childhood, I remember how groceries required coordination and cooking necessitated care. Serving size was considered so that each person would have the correct portion. If somebody wanted more, those gathered around the table checked if everybody had gotten their share. Because I saw the limits of the meal, its value as sustenance became clear.
This becomes all the more important given the fact that food security remains deeply uneven throughout New York City and at Columbia. According to a 2019 study by the School of General Studies, more than one in three non-joint or dual degree undergraduate students at GS experience food insecurity. The fact that many Columbia students feel the need to stock up on days worth of food using one meal-swipe is a testament of a dining culture too decadent to be truly inclusive. This January, GS had to create a pilot program for subsidized meal plans for its low-income students. Yet, Columbia continues to tell its students that limitless pizza and piles of pastrami should be at our disposal—and disposable.
Our access to dining services alters our relationship with food from one of appreciation to one of entitlement. Out of expediency, Columbia will never scale-back its dining services. But why not make minor adjustments to ensure less-wasteful consumption patterns?
Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler describes a “nudge” as any alteration to decision making architecture that doesn’t eliminate choice. The assumption of the alteration is basic: Institutions should create environmental cues that encourage better decision-making, because context determines much of what we call individual decision-making.
The premise of Columbia’s nudge toward a less wasteful food culture could be as simple as setting a threshold limit of servings per meal swipe. I’m not suggesting that Columbia Dining eliminate its variety of choice, or that they set each meal swipe to one serving per swipe. But Columbia should set the expectation that students actually make a choice about what they eat.
A visit to the Columbia Dining’s web page seems to suggest that an “all-you-care-to-eat” model is compatible with efforts for zero-waste. You’ll read about how food scraps are collected and composted as part of the DSNY organic composting program. You’ll also learn that to reduce carbon footprint, Columbia Dining supports regional businesses, with 56 percent of all food purchased from vendors within 250 miles of campus. However, these efforts don’t change the fact the Department of Health still requires all unconsumed prepared foods to be thrown out.
If Columbia Dining services provided a threshold serving per meal swipe, they could far more easily anticipate consumption patterns, preventing waste as a result. Imagine the energy saved by avoiding the sum of all the disposed half-eaten second and third servings. Think of the students currently facing food insecurity who could be offered meal plans if the same amount of food went further.
All-you-care-to eat is a slap in the face to students who face food insecurity. And even if this issue appears insignificant to you, I urge you to consider how your peers feel about attending an institution that encourages its students to eat wastefully when some members don’t know how they’ll get their next meal. Columbia owes them the small gesture of a less wasteful and more inclusive food culture.
Jacob Mazzarella is a junior studying political science in the School of General Studies. Like you, he occasionally likes to have seconds when he goes to a dining hall.
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