The health crisis linked to Covid-19 has highlighted the vulnerability of many young people in France, revealing health inequalities that have greatly increased since the economic crisis of 2008. The plight of students in particular was widely publicized. Mental health disorders, consumption of psychoactive substances, unbalanced nutrition… Student health behaviors are a cause for concern and justify youth-related issues as the basis of public health policy. What can a university do when faced with this observation? Here we offer an overview of student meals and the role this institution can play.
Student nutrition by numbers
Although young people generally know more about dietary recommendations than adults, this knowledge is not enough to influence their food choices, as they themselves point out. Young people between the ages of 18 and 25 are less likely to follow dietary recommendations than older people. They consume less fruits and vegetables, drink more sugary drinks, skip meals, go to fast-food outlets more, etc. Students also spend half of their food budgets on eating out, twice as much as households aged 35-64.
Their diets worsen during exam period, with a quarter reporting that they give up shopping and cooking afterwards.
Entering college contributes to weight gain, with students gaining an average of 6 pounds during their first year of college. Between 2012 and 2020, the proportion of 18-24-year-olds who were obese in France nearly doubled, from 5.4% to 9.2%. About half of students say they worry about their weight and about a quarter have an eating disorder.
In addition, student food insecurity is a widespread and worrisome problem. The Observatory of Student Life revealed in 2016 that 8% of students reported skipping meals due to financial difficulties. These figures have been made worse by the increased demand for food aid during the health crisis, with one in two students reporting not having enough to eat. Faced with this observation, Crous university restaurants offered meals for €1, an offer that is still available to scholarship students and is in a precarious position.
Living apart is an emancipation that requires heavy responsibilities
“Decohabitant” students, in other words, who have left the family home to live alone, as a couple, in shared accommodation or even in a university residence, face new imperatives. Acquiring an independent apartment puts many responsibilities on them: time management, food shopping, meal preparation, often sticking to a limited budget, etc.
The know-how that many students declare they don’t have. Using ready-made meals or preparing very simple and inexpensive meals like a plate of pasta often seems to them the only solution. When we ask students in depth, we find that many meals eaten alone at home are experienced as moments of painful loneliness, in front of screens, even skipping meals and trying to control them by eating quickly. Loneliness is opposed to any food enjoyment, the latter, according to their comments, seems to be entirely related to the conviviality created around a meal taken together.
A student meal is, above all, a social act
If living apart reinforces the constraints of everyday life, it also comes with a sense of freedom and carelessness… and extremes. Students especially enjoy meeting around the fast-food menu. In addition to the low price of these dishes, it is the sense of conviviality and decompression among friends that attracts them. Although group influence is often viewed negatively, it can also promote beneficial behaviors.
For example, the simple fact of seeing others choosing healthy foods in university cafeterias can encourage them to do the same. Because they offer such food at a low price and have a good atmosphere, university restaurants are liked by about half of the students, some even claim that they are the ideal solution to combine balance and fun. . However, this observation should be nuanced: schedule constraints, waiting times and the lack of variety or taste quality of food in certain structures drive students away from university restaurants or encourage them to eat potatoes there, in their words, a “safe bet”. Despite these limitations, surveys conducted by the Observatory of Student Life indicate that students are committed to the university catering model. It seems important to preserve this model, especially when the food supply around the university is limited or mostly limited to fast food.
Can a university improve student nutrition?
A university alone cannot handle all aspects of student nutrition. However, it can help them appreciate the moment of eating better, especially by planning enough meal time between classes, creating comfortable spaces and improving and diversifying the food offer of university restaurants.
The nutritional quality of the foods offered there can be indicated by logos such as Nutri-score, which gives an at-a-glance insight into the overall nutritional quality of foods, thus helping students make better food choices.
These measures can be strengthened by encouraging co-construction approaches with students. By investing in participatory research programs like the NutriNet-Santé study, students can contribute to a better understanding of their eating behaviors and the factors that influence them, which is an important first step before considering new activities.
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Initiatives such as installing food trucks on or near campuses, offering healthy, diverse, sometimes solidarity-based meals made with local products that are more respectful of the environment, are proliferating, thus complementing the offer of university restaurants. However, they are slow to accommodate in certain areas with large numbers of socially disadvantaged students.
At the University of Bordeaux Montaigne, initiatives dedicated to combating the student threat, such as neighborhood associations, student solidarity associations, or even the provision of a “shared refrigerator” provided by the residents of the area, can also be welcomed.
Alice Bellicha (Teacher at Sorbonne Paris Nord University)
Julia Baudry (Nutritional epidemiologist, INRAE)
Mathilde Touvier (Director of the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Group, U1153 Inserm, Inra, Cnam, Sorbonne Paris Nord University, Inserm)
Sandrine Péneau (Lecturer in Nutrition at Sorbonne Paris Nord University)