The health crisis associated with COVID-19 has highlighted the vulnerability of many young people in France and revealed in particular the inequalities in the field of health, which have already increased significantly since the economic crisis of 2008. The plight of students, in particular, has been intensively publicized. Mental health disorders, consumption of psychoactive substances, unbalanced diet… The health behavior of students is worrying and justifies the fact that youth issues have become the focus of public health policies. What can the university do about this observation? Here we propose a point about student food and the role that this institution could play.
Student nutrition in numbers
Although young people generally know more about dietary recommendations than their elders, as they themselves point out, this knowledge is not enough to influence their food choices. Young people aged 18 to 25 follow dietary recommendations less than older people. They consume less fruit and vegetables, drink more sugary drinks, skip meals, go to fast food more, etc. Students spend half of their budget on food and eating out, twice as much as households aged 35-64.
Their diets appear to deteriorate further during the trial period, with a quarter of them reporting that they give up shopping and meal preparation afterwards.
Entering college appears to contribute to weight gain, with students gaining an average of 6 pounds in their first year of college. In France, the proportion of young people aged 18 to 24 who are obese almost doubled between 2012 and 2020, rising from 5.4 to 9.2%. Almost half of students say they are concerned about their weight and almost a quarter have an eating disorder.
Additionally, student food insecurity is a widespread and troubling problem. The Student Life Observatory revealed in 2016 that 8% of students reported skipping meals due to financial issues. These figures have worsened during the health crisis with increased use of food aid, with one in two students saying they do not have enough to eat. In the face of this observation, meals for €1 were offered in the Crous university restaurants, while this offer is still available for scholarship holders and in an uncertain situation.
Living apart, emancipation carries with it a great responsibility
“Decohabitant” students, in other words, who have left the family home to live alone, in a couple, in shared housing or even in a university residence, find themselves faced with new imperatives. Access to independent living places many responsibilities on them: time management, grocery shopping, meal preparation, keeping to an often limited budget, etc.
As much know-how as students declare that they have not acquired. The only solution is often to use ready-made meals or to prepare very simple and cheap meals, such as a plate of pasta. When we ask students in depth, we find that the meals they eat alone at home are experienced by many as moments of painful loneliness that they try to control by eating fast, in front of screens, even skipping meals. Loneliness is opposed to any enjoyment of food, which, according to their comments, seems to be entirely connected to the hospitality that is created around a shared meal.
Student food, primarily a social event
If living separately reinforces the constraints of everyday life, it is also accompanied by a sense of freedom and carefreeness… as well as excess. Students seem particularly fond of congregating around the fast food menu. In addition to the low cost of these meals, they are attracted by the hospitality and the feeling of decompression among friends. While group influence is often perceived negatively, it can also promote beneficial behavior.
For example, in university cafeterias, the simple fact that they see others choosing healthy foods can encourage them to do so. Because they offer this kind of food at low prices and there is a good atmosphere, university restaurants are popular with almost half of the students, some even say that they are the perfect solution to combine balance and hospitality. However, this observation needs to be modified: time constraints, waiting times and the lack of variety or taste quality of food in certain structures prevent students from accessing university restaurants or encourage them to eat fries there, which in their own words is a “safe bet”. . Despite these limitations, the Hvezdárne survey of student life testifies to the attachment of students to the model of university catering. It seems necessary to maintain this model, especially if the food supply around the university is limited or mostly limited to fast food.
Can the university improve student nutrition?
The university alone cannot act in all aspects of student nutrition. But it can help them better appreciate the moment of eating, especially by planning enough time to eat between classes, creating social spaces and improving and diversifying the food offerings of university restaurants.
The nutritional quality of the food offered was also indicated thanks to logos such as the Nutri-score, which gives an idea of the overall nutritional quality of the food at a glance, and which thus helps students make a better choice of nutrition.
These actions could be strengthened by promoting joint construction approaches with students. By investing in participatory research programs such as the NutriNet-Santé study, students will be able to contribute to a better understanding of their eating behaviors and the factors that influence them, an essential first step before considering new activities.
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Initiatives such as the installation of food trucks on campuses or near them, offering healthy, varied, sometimes even solidarity meals prepared from local products that are more environmentally friendly, are multiplying and thus complementing the offer of university restaurants. However, in some territories, where many students are in an unfavorable social situation, they are deployed slowly.
Initiatives aimed at combating student insecurity can also be welcomed, such as the provision of a “common fridge” at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne, supplied by neighborhood associations, student solidarity associations or even residents of the work.
Alice Bellicha (lecturer, Sorbonne Paris Nord University)
Julia Baudry (nutrition epidemiologist, INRAE)
Mathilde Touvier (Director of the Nutrition Epidemiology Research Team, U1153 Inserm, Inra, Cnam, Sorbonne University Paris Nord, Inserm)
Sandrine Péneau (nutrition lecturer, Sorbonne Paris Nord University)