April 19, 2011

Free food nation

Campus groups should find more innovative methods of self-promotion than free food

Saturday night. A friend calls to ask me what I’m going to do for dinner.

I reply that my House is taking a trip to Demera, and return the question to him.

His response? Game Night at Bartlett.

Which RSO?

He doesn’t know, mumbles something about Go and Mahjongg, postulates that it’s run by one of the Asian organizations. But, does it really matter? There’s free bubble tea and even the prospect of a free dinner!

I hear myself: Wow, jealous! I have to pay for my Saturday night meal.

So the conversation continues. He has to go. We hang up.

The RSO, as it turns out, was PanAsia. I’d never heard of PanAsia up to this point, and evidently, neither had my friend, before or after the officially named “Game Day.” When asked about his experience at Game Day, he told me that his group had stood in line for the bubble tea and then left, unwilling to play games in the hour-long wait to get the free meal.

It’s a common story. My friend here is guilty of this sort of grab-the-free-food-and-run mentality. But so am I. And, odds are, you are too.

Thinking back on two and a half quarters, overstuffed memories of long lines and various buffet-style trays featuring everything from caramel apples to pierogi to Jimmy John’s come wandering back. I’ve been reeled into events, lectures, meetings, with the prospect of free food so many times that they’ve all begun to melt together into one continuous feast in my memory. All free food is not created equal, however. Some events (see: International Food Festival) are more “successful” than others, i.e., I get my hands on a whole plate of free food as opposed to one measly piece of candy.

These kinds of memories (and the sheer number of them), as well as the exchange I had with my friend, are a little problematic and pretty embarrassing to me. Is free food really the most powerful motivation for students to attend an event or do, well, anything? Why do we so easily fall victim to the free food trap?

I’d venture to say that hardly any of us are actually underfed on campus, especially those on the meal plan. One could counter this with the argument that dining hall food is decidedly lackluster, occasionally downright terrible, so the prospect of putting anything out of the norm into our excitement-deprived stomachs is especially tantalizing. Yet that doesn’t really explain the tendency of crazed students, when given the opportunity, to grab as much free food as possible even when 1) they’re not actually hungry, or 2) the food isn’t very good, and 3) so much time (sometimes more than an hour) is sacrificed just standing in line waiting behind all the other free food repeat offenders. Why are we willing to do so much for so little, if that “little” means free food?

It’s a fascinating phenomenon that’s confined not only to college campuses but America as a whole. Some people are skeptical. They have a point when they ask, “What country isn’t obsessed with food?”

But the way we obsess is different. In other nations, the food is vibrant and delicious, but it’s not the main course; that, of course, would be conversation. Food is considered a communal experience, enjoyed slowly and with good company. Here? The obsession takes a form dictated by our instant gratification, nonstop work-and-play lifestyles; we love fast food, thoughtless food, and, of course, free food. The college campus, where events come in swarms and students never have a minute or a quarter to spare, is the perfect microcosm of the American food culture. Wednesday’s $1 shakes are an example of college food culture. So are daily food study breaks during finals (whose idea was it that the best way to de-stress is to eat cookies, pies, and donuts after a long day of being locked up in a room or the library, crouched over and immobile?). Nowhere is this most evident, though, than in the ubiquitous practice of luring students in with free food. Both sides—the enticers and the enticed—participate, and both sides lose.

That’s not to say I’m against free food. My friend with the bubble tea thinks I am, and has concluded that I’m against all that is good in humanity. While that may be true, what I’m really critical of is the way free food becomes an end in itself rather than being a means to another end. Generating interest and membership in RSOs or other campus groups, as well as promoting specific initiatives to students, get lost under the weight of all the free food. Students are blindsided by frozen chocolate-covered bananas and consequently sign petitions for causes they don’t necessarily believe in (Green Campus Initiative employed this strategy to great success: No signature? No food). The RSO itself is increasingly the afterthought; our fixation on “free plus food” grows. Not only does this promote an unhealthy relationship with food, contributing to weight gain in college, but continues to perpetuate a consumerist mindset that becomes more deep-seated with every bite of that free sandwich you just grabbed.

So downplay the free food, and make students stop, look, and listen through other means. It will be difficult, but it’s possible.

Emily Wang is a first-year in the College.