Freedom of food: A forgotten right

| Staff Columnist
Becky Zhao

Bon Appétit Management Company has, with a few exceptions, a monopoly on on-campus dining at Washington University. Also, Bon Appétit undoubtedly has an agenda. This agenda includes a preference for organic and local ingredients, an emphasis on healthy eating, and a regard for the environment. In fact, Bon Appétit’s motto is “Food services for a sustainable future.” A quick visit to Wash. U. Dining Services’ Web site, or a glance at the ubiquitous signage at any Bon Appétit location, makes the agenda abundantly clear. On the surface, the elements of this agenda seem like admirable goals for a food service company. But in practice, this agenda is actually disrespectful and unfair to students. Unfortunately, because of the near monopoly Bon Appétit maintains, most students are left with no choice but to have the Bon Appétit mentality crammed down their throats, both figuratively and literally, every time they swipe their ID cards to purchase breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The point of this article is not to argue against the local and organic food movements, and certainly not to criticize environmentalism. My point is that as young adults, college students should be trusted to choose their own food according to their own preferences and morals. Currently, Wash. U. students are faced with only one way of eating. Examples of this include the recently lifted bans on tomatoes and bananas (which just returned to campus). While I do not have the knowledge or desire to debate the merits of eating non-Free Trade bananas and winter tomatoes, I do resent the freedom of choice that was taken from me regarding a very personal decision: what food I put into my body. There are parts of Bon Appétit’s agenda that I respect and admire, and others that I disagree with strongly. But I still maintain that I should have the right to make my own moral, ethical and environmental decisions. I would not object to signage or information regarding the ethics of a given ingredient; in fact I would welcome and use such information, but I think college students have mature enough moral compasses to decide when it is OK to eat a (potentially) ethically tainted tomato.

In addition to taking away our freedom to make our own moral judgments, I believe there is another reason the Bon Appétit agenda is unfair to students. The reason is that Bon Appétit’s agenda hits us in the wallet. Like it or not, organic food simply costs more than non-organic food. It is no coincidence that a $1 McDonald’s burger contains no organic ingredients. In addition, I am almost certain that Bon Appétit incurs significant administrative costs in locally sourcing its ingredients that are passed on to students via food prices. Again, by virtue of the monopoly Bon Appétit enjoys, there is no alternative and students are forced to pay for the more expensive philosophy that Bon Appétit abides by. Why should students indifferent to organic foods be forced to pay the extra cost to eat organic? This certainly is not fair to the many students and families for whom college tuition, and the associated costs like meal plans, represent a significant financial burden.

An opposing argument to mine might be that Wash. U. as an institution should support environmentalist and other social efforts, and that contracting with Bon Appétit’s actions are an example of this support. While I agree that the University should use its muscle to support social goals, I believe that this effort crosses the line. It is one thing for the University to build environmentally friendly buildings; it is quite another for it to make personal eating choices for its students. I believe Wash. U. should not be able to tell me what to eat any more than Wash. U. should determine how I vote or what I wear. Sadly, by allowing the Bon Appétit monopoly, and requiring every student to buy a meal plan, that is exactly what the University is doing.

There are two solutions to this dilemma. The first would be for Bon Appétit to offer more-conventional (and cheaper) food options alongside the options that fit its agenda. This, however, seems unlikely due to the resolve Bon Appétit seems to have in its mission. The second would be for Wash. U. to break up the Bon Appétit monopoly and let the students decide what eateries to support with their spending power. Students wishing to spend the extra money to eat the Bon Appétit way could do so, and other students wishing to save money and eat more traditionally could do so as well. This seems to me like the best and most-fair option, and the option that I believe the University should pursue once it decides to get out of the dirty business of deciding what food should and should not go into its students’ mouths.

Andrew is a sophomore in Engineering. He can be reached via e-mail at ayg@cec.wustl.edu.

  • Russell

    Just my $0.02 here, but (despite enjoying tomatoes and bananas very much) I think that Bon Appetite ought to have a free hand in this sort of thing, as long as they’re not entirely eliminating protein from the menu or anything.

    Why? Because as much of an effect as individuals can have by boycotting specific menu items, (a) most of us probably never take the effort to *really* find out where our food comes from, and (b) the producers are still getting paid, if we’re doing as you suggest and requiring Bon Appetite to continue offering “controversial” foods as an option to students.

    Lets face it, there are lots of people who couldn’t care less where their food comes from. And as long as food services are required to limit their social activism to avoid inconveniencing that demographic, not much is going to happen. I, personally, would love to see chain grocery stores (e.g. Schnucks) taking a stand like Bon Appetite has.

    The problem is that by allowing students to “use their own moral compass” on food, we’re requiring Bon Appetite executives to IGNORE their own moral compasses and continue to purchase that food. And I’m not sure that should ever be how things work.