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NEXT L.A. | Trend Watch: College Diets

More Students Eating on the Run; Dorm Food No Longer the Norm


Mari Lee begins breakfast promptly at 11:20 a.m. as she rushes to class at Golden West College with a Diet Coke in one hand and some rice cakes in the other.

Dinner won't be for another 10 hours--maybe a bowl of cereal and a banana during an evening homework break.

"In between, I basically graze," Lee said. "I might have a muffin in the afternoon and some fruit later. . . . It depends how busy I am."

In the college cuisine of the 1990s, the customary breakfast-lunch-and-dinner routine has given way to portable sushi packs, deli sandwiches from vending machine and 10 p.m. cereal runs.

Pressured by heavy class loads, long commutes and demanding off-campus jobs, fewer college students have time for sit-down meals and are grabbing food when they can--often on the run.

Some nutritionists express alarm over the students' reliance on fatty snacks. University food managers, meanwhile, struggle to keep pace by opening dining areas late at night and preparing dishes that are both fast and healthy.

"Students are in a quandary," said Alan Moloney, director of food services at UC Irvine. "They have so little time to eat. But they have been taught all about good nutrition and want to eat healthy foods."

That is a far cry from the regimented college dining experience of a generation ago, when many meals featured liver and onions and Salisbury steak served cafeteria-style in cavernous eating halls.

"Thirty years ago, you had one entree, one salad, one desert and one glass of milk," said Eric Scandrett, who heads Aramark's Chapman University operation. "In those days, we even had a dress code for evening meals."

Today, dining halls have given way to food courts that offer students dozens of eating choices from egg rolls and bagels to tacos and tofu. UC Irvine's facilities include Taco Bell and Togo's restaurants as well as espresso cafes, pizzerias, sushi bars and Mexican eateries. The selection is vast, but the common denominator is speed.

"They are looking for foods that don't take a long time to prepare," Moloney said. "People don't want to stand in line waiting for their food."

With students working or studying well into the night, colleges have detected a decline in breakfast traffic. Some students say they are simply replacing an early morning meal with a post-dinner snack.

"I haven't had a pancake breakfast in years," said Lee, 19, of Huntington Beach. "Most of my friends tend to have a light breakfast . . . or skip it."

UC Irvine is responding to the change by keeping some food areas open until 11 p.m. and extending breakfast hours at other facilities to serve late risers.

Students are also making a major dietary shift away from red meats. Chapman University estimates that about a quarter of its students don't eat meat, while a UCI study found that 35% of students surveyed call themselves vegetarians or "semi-vegetarians."

That trend also concerns dietitians. College students might know more about nutrition than their predecessors, but that doesn't mean they always select healthy foods.

"A primary concern of students is time," said Katie Johansen, a nutritionist at UCI's Student Health Center. "When they get stressed, their priority is not on eating. They tend to grab what is convenient."

Johansen and other experts insist that students can find healthy options with a little effort. She suggests packing fruit from a snack during the day and seeking out salads and low-fat meals at the food court.

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