If you ask Hokies why they chose Virginia Tech, chances are one of them will reference the food. Over the past few years, Virginia Tech has consistently been ranked among the best college campuses for food and dining. From all-you-can-eat dining at D2 to grab-and-go items for busy students, there is a wide variety of dining options available on campus.
In fact, one of the highlights of my day is browsing the Grubhub app to appease my growling stomach. “Do I want a burger and fries,” I asked myself one day, “or should I be healthy for once and order a fruit bowl?” It was during this moment that I noticed another significant difference between these two options: the price.
An order of french fries from the DXpress on campus costs $2.05 ($1.51 with a flex plan) compared to a fresh fruit bowl from Deet’s Place which costs $4.95 ($2.96 with a plan). It may seem easy to blame the cost difference on the idea that fresh and healthier food is simply more expensive, but much more goes into this decision making process.
Dr. Courtney Thomas, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech, specializes in research within food politics.
Continuing with the fruit bowl example, one of the biggest reasons why it is more expensive is because that food “can go bad quickly” according to Thomas. A fruit bowl from Deet’s consists of fresh strawberries, grapes, pineapple, honeydew and cantaloupe. Because it is fresh and does not contain preservatives, it is likely to spoil faster than a potato, which Thomas says has a longer shelf life.
“Fruit is not long-term shelf stable, and there is a very tight window where it can be prepared, packaged and sold to consumer convenience of the grab-and-go, which increases prices,” Thomas said.
Brian Grove, senior associate director of Dining Services, explains how Virginia Tech specifically determines food prices.
“Each year, dining goes through a price-and-portion process,” Grove said. “(We) review and look at the product to make sure everything is included in the cost.”
Everything from the cost of packaging and labor to the availability of produce in each season determines prices.
“The fruit bowl container costs about 12 cents compared to the paper bag for fries that’s six cents,” Grove said. “That’s already double the cost just in paper goods.”
Therefore, the difference in the cost of packaging between the two items will be reflected in the overall cost.
Food prices are also heavily impacted by the ever-changing seasons. “In the summertime, fruit is cheap, compared to February when the fruit is not the most cost-effective product,” Grove said.
Melon, which is found in the fruit bowls on campus, is in-season during the summer months and will therefore be much cheaper at that time than in the winter months when it is not in peak growth.
In addition to availability and packaging, students are one of the biggest influences on food prices.
“They’re going to set the price based on what sells,” Thomas said. “So if you’re willing to pay five bucks for a fruit cup, they’re going to charge you five bucks for a fruit cup.”
This may explain why french fries are much cheaper than fruit bowls because of their popularity among students. It also comes down to convenience. College students are busy, which makes it hard to find the time to plan meals. If you’re on the go and willing to pay for convenience, the price will reflect that.
While trends do have the power to determine what is being sold and can influence prices, there is not evidence that the relationship works vice versa.
“No trend indicates product pricing is a factor on the purchasing habits,” Grove said. “Dining finds that most students are not as influenced by pricing as they are by variety.”
However, Thomas argues otherwise.
“Lower income families and students are far more likely to be food insecure, which limits their food choices,” Thomas said. “They often have no choice but to prioritize short-term needs.”
These needs may often be money, time and convenience.
Though it may appear that the “healthier” options are more expensive, it is because the prices are a reflection of their costs.
“Overall, there is no difference in prices in what we consider to be ‘healthy’ versus traditional menu items,” Grove said.
This is because once the costs of packaging, labor and food are added together, the prices are in fact comparable despite the numerical difference.
While some students living on campus may not worry about price, this cannot be said of the rest of society. It is not impossible to cook healthy meals on a budget, but not everyone has the luxury.
“Most American families don’t have the time, knowledge and the equipment to do it. The problem only gets worse at the lower ends of the socioeconomic spectrum,” Thomas said.
Lower income families are less likely to have the income and time to support a diet based on fresh, healthy food. This is where our society needs to place a greater emphasis on food education.
“People need opportunities to learn to shop for and prepare healthy meals,” Thomas said.
A universal minimum wage can also help ensure that everyone has access to healthier options, as well as a complete overhaul of school lunch programs.
“School lunch programs need to be completely overhauled in order to provide a healthy variety of foods to young students whose tastes are often ‘set’ on prepackaged, frozen, reheated convenience foods such as chicken nuggets, hot dogs, hamburger patties, canned fruits in heavy syrup and processed snack foods,” Thomas said.
Thomas also argues that more can be done on college campuses to make healthier food options more accessible.
“Colleges and universities can help by making healthy options in their dining halls price competitive with ‘fast food options’ and by providing surplus foods to food insecure students at no charge,” Thomas said.
There are so many ways our society can address food security. Only when this overhaul is achieved will there be equal access to healthy food for all both on campus and throughout the country.