02/10/2014 11:45 am ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

My Empty Fridge

In college I've learned that balance requires sacrifice. I'll trade an hour of sleep for an hour of studying, an hour with a book for an hour with a friend. I lay my time down like cards hoping that by the weekend I'll be ready to celebrate a game well-played. But I have found that college not only demands sacrifices of my time -- it demands sacrifices of my health, too.

According to Brian Wansink, professor of consumer behavior and nutritional science at Cornell and author of Mindless Eating, the average person makes around 250 decisions about food each day. For me, the swell starts around 9 a.m.: breakfast or no breakfast? Eggs or protein bar? Sit down or walk? Cook food or buy? Two meals and a snack or three snacks and a meal, or are we still doing that five-small-meals thing? Then there are the slightly more long-term questions: how much can I afford to spend on groceries this month? Should I trek a half-hour through the polar vortex to the People's Food Co-Op, or wing it to save money and hope a friend can drive me to Meijer or Trader Joe's sometime soon? My food choices involve many factors -- price, taste, health, transportation, distance, time to prepare and clean-up. Ultimately, most of my questions reveal that I have yet to secure a comfortable eating routine in my four years of college.

I would like to think that being healthy is only a matter of changing my own habits. Yet on those days when the fridge is empty save for my trusty PB&J, I know that the environment plays an important role, too. I am, in part, a product of Ann Arbor, where I live without a car or a supermarket selling affordable goods within walking distance, though I am minutes away from several sandwich and pizza joints. I am a product of the University of Michigan, where after making it through class, work, and extracurricular commitments, I find it difficult to muster the enthusiasm it would take to walk across town to buy overpriced produce, then spend the requisite time in my kitchen trying to whip up tasty, balanced meals before the food spoils.

While I realize that my food habits reflect my own priorities and budget, research shows that I am not alone. According to studies by UM Human Nutrition Program graduate student Nikki Kasper -- a founding member of Student Food Co., a weekly farm stand that sells fresh produce on campus -- about 40 percent of the UM student body is food insecure. In other words, over 17,000 students feel they have limited or uncertain access to affordable and nutritious food. (1)

Why was I so shocked to learn this, and why am I still uncomfortable calling myself even marginally food insecure? When I came to college, I was warned that I would have to adapt to new responsibilities and support systems, and that many of us were likely to develop imbalanced eating habits during this transitional period; I was not warned of the food imbalance written into the environment, replete with liquor stores, bars and restaurants, yet lacking an affordable grocery store.

The food discussions I have heard around campus focus more on the "freshmen 15" and disordered eating than food security in Ann Arbor. After analyzing popular press articles about the "freshmen 15," Cecilia Brown, a research professor at the University of Oklahoma, found the weight gain phenomenon to be "more of an urban myth than a proven medical fact," yet widespread use of the phrase perpetuates the stereotype of indulgence among college students. (2) Disordered eating can also be linked to low accessibility of nutritious food, but when assumed to be unrelated, the conversation stops at media, body image, and issues of self-control. Hunger has long been identified as a serious problem on campuses nationwide, but at U of M, food insecurity remains for the most part an unspoken reality. Few are comfortable admitting they have inadequate food, to themselves or to others, but there is simply a huge disparity between students who can pay full tuition and others who must take out loans, juggle jobs, or support families. Our image of the typical college student is becoming increasingly atypical in this economic climate and the grocery options around campus should reflect this truth, rather than cater to a wealthier segment of the population. I cannot help but feel the imbalance when I walk by high rises like Zaragon and 411 Lofts looming over markets like Replenish and Babo, where even instant Mac goes for nearly five dollars.

A friend recently asked if I thought balance was an attainable ideal on an individual level. As someone who left school on the classic search for meaning and well, balance, and ended up in India, as such excursions often do, I like to think balance is attainable. I replied that I think of it in terms of a destabilized system that wants to restore equilibrium. Opening the fridge later that night, I thought, maybe this is why I feel slightly disappointed in myself every time I look in here -- do not get me wrong, I will always love PB&J, but I wish I had the time, energy and money it would take to cultivate balanced and healthy habits in the imbalanced college environment.

Since learning about the high rate of food insecurity among students, I have begun to support organizations like Student Food Co., the Campus Farm and Food Gatherers, groups that facilitate relevant conversations and take steps to make healthy, affordable food more accessible in Ann Arbor, so that sustainable habits might fall into place more naturally.

1. Kasper, Nicole. "Abstract #31: Predictors of Food Insecurity in University Students." UM Health System Symposium (2014): Print.

2. Brown, Cecilia. "A Systematic Review of the 'Freshmen 15.'" 2008 25 (2008): 1-12. Print.