It’s the fall of my daughter’s senior year in high school, and we’re in the thick of college shopping season. Together we’ve toured a dozen schools – big and small, public and private, urban and rural. These tours are always exciting, but few elements are more entertaining than the trip through the dining hall. The full-spirited guides become especially energized as they describe their “unlimited swipes” meal plans.

“Armed with your student ID, you can eat as much as you wish, at any time of the day or night, as often as you wish. Pizza, ice cream, cappuccino, chicken nuggets …” One school had the perverse idea of a declining balance. The poor tour guide had to describe such a heinous system under her breath and was accosted by the parents in the group — “You don’t have unlimited swipes?!”

The caloric intake at some schools must compare to that of many small, impoverished nations. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but consider the suggested daily caloric intake of 2,300 calories, and compare that to the average 2,900 calories consumed by each of the planet’s 7 billion people. With 1 billion to 2 billion people suffering pervasive hunger, that means many of us are eating way more than we need.

Unlimited access to comfort foods might be enticing, but I find it misguided. Food is important and should factor into the college decision-making process, but the focus on quantity sends the wrong message. We should be inspiring prospective students with how food is grown, prepared and consumed. The way we approach our food systems and our daily meals should be considered a vital part of the undergraduate curriculum.

Maybe that sounds like a lot to ask. But better articulating food within the curriculum would tie learning outcomes directly to what students eat. Students are learning from and paying for the experience inside and outside the classroom — why shouldn’t colleges be leading the charge on food literacy?

“But all that local, high-quality, academically imbued food costs so much money!” one might say. Yes, it does. But pare back the endless choices and the ludicrous volumes and I guarantee you would make up the difference.

Here I’ll admit my bias: I am the president of a college that cares deeply about food — not just how much we offer, nor how good it tastes, but also one that understands the individual, institutional and global importance of food systems. Eating produce, beef, pork and poultry from our two farms generates a lot of conversation about food. Nothing inspires the questioning of meat consumption like a cute, but suddenly missing, Belted Galloway cow.

I propose three general steps colleges could take, regardless of their size or academic character, to help inspire and encourage food literacy.

First, every college can, and should, have a farm. There’s no excuse for not carving out a small but very visible space on campus to grow food. It need not be large nor diverse, but it’s time to till some of that precious lawn and plant something.

Second, end food service for one meal on just one day of the week. Where I work, we’ve strategically not served food on the weekends at all, and we outfit all on-campus residences with full kitchens. Nothing brings people together like cooking and eating, and nothing inspires the value of food more than having to procure and prepare it on your own. And, come on, we’re not asking students to go hunt and gather their breakfast (though I do like that idea).

Third, it’s time we take a very sharp ax to the idea of unlimited swipes. It’s gluttonous and unethical, and it undermines the possibility that students might come to understand the value of food. I hate to break an arrow in the quiver of those enthusiastic admissions tour guides, but colleges and universities should collectively step up to the plate and not make unlimited access to food a carrot, so to speak, for college selection.

Darron Collins is president of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.