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My frustrations with Stanford Late Night

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In elementary school, “The Midnight Snack” was one of the most exciting parts of my week. Every Saturday, I slept over at my best friend’s house. At midnight, we sneaked into her kitchen and glutted ourselves on Ritz crackers and string cheese. On the floor of her pantry, we peeled those once-solid sticks into countless flimsy ropes of wispy, rubbery goodness, reveling in our sneakiness and general brilliance. Once we’d tossed the wrappers of our feast and retraced our steps, we fell back into bed, full of highly processed cheese. Victorious. 

Now, I am more or less an adult. I am also a college student for whom midnight is no longer such a treat, but rather an hour by which I might hope to have my head on my pillow and not in my homework. The Midnight Snack has also changed dramatically in form and function. Now, it comes in many different shapes, sizes and flavors. Hundreds of students partake. Most importantly, it isn’t just available at midnight, but rather 9:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., seven days a week. The Midnight Snack has been rechristened Stanford Late Night.

Stanford is not the only college to offer food late at night, nor is it a trendsetter. The 24-hour college food scene has been a part of college culture for decades. Back in the time of The Midnight Snack, I might have had another opinion, but now, as a student who believes that my tuition should not only cover a stellar academic education but also one in well-being, I believe that Stanford Late Night is unhealthy and unacceptable, especially at a university that prides itself on healthful food initiatives. It needs to go or change immediately.

In stark contrast, Stanford’s daytime dining options have rendered the University a leader in healthful food. In 2014, Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE), Stanford Medicine and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) co-founded the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative. It uses college dining as a laboratory for “cultivating the long-term well-being of people and the planet — one student, one meal at a time.” Over the years, R&DE has revamped its culinary, sourcing, sustainability and safety standards. It has also done wonders in the field of culinary and nutritional information through countless student engagement programs. Last year, I worked as a Baking Apprentice in the Stanford Executive Dining Commons, the same institution that, for 14 years, has ranked first in executive university dining by the Financial Times. Not only was it an intensely enjoyable (and tasty) experience — I also developed a deep interest in food systems because of it. 

It’s reassuring that Stanford students are in such good culinary hands, because college students are some of the most precarious eaters. They have some of the lowest fruit and vegetable intakes and some of the highest sodium, fat and sugar intakes. 37% of the college student population is overweight, and 11% is obese. To ensure that today’s college students don’t inflate the billions of dollars already spent on obesity annually, dining halls — which offer the perfect opportunity for developing new habits — must focus on successfully nudging students toward healthier eating habits. 

That is not the case at Arrillaga Nights, one of three Stanford Late Night programs where students can choose between 42 options, from oreo milkshakes to chicken quesadillas. Among those, fruit and salad options are nowhere to be found. The only vegetables offered are those loosely perched on the frozen Veggie Delight Pizza — that is, unless, we’re also considering French fries as vegetables. Vegetarian options are limited. By R&DE’s dining hall standards, healthful options are non-existent. 

Why should this food program exist if Stanford’s goal is to cultivate “the long-term well-being of people and the planet — one student, one meal at a time?” 

Those in favor of offering late-night food argue that it benefits students who don’t have enough time to eat during the day, especially during dining hall hours. Other schools, like Vanderbilt University, have instituted late-night food options in response to the deaths of several students who drove off-campus for food while under the influence of alcohol. At the same time, however, these offerings encourage students to get less sleep, and sleep-deprived performance is similar to performance under the influence of alcohol. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 55% of all 100,000 annual drowsy driving crashes are caused by fatigued drivers under the age of 25.

The same symptoms of sleep deprivation that impair driving also impair brain function. While Stanford suggests that Late Night “should be your venue of choice” if you need to work, studies show that late-night eating not only impairs sleep quality, but also memory and learning ability (and not just during the night of ingestion). If your goal is to get an assignment done, you’re better off going to bed, skipping that late-night meal, and waking up early in the morning. For these reasons, Late Night can only be described as hypocritical, a threat not only to R&DE’s healthful food programs but also to the University’s overarching values of student safety, well-being, and academic excellence.

Stanford has a lot to lose by feeding students bad food and making that bad food available late at night — but it also has an opportunity to be a leader in promoting self-care and safety through food, which could also address dangerously high stress levels and poor decision-making among students. While its food is already one of the healthiest in the nation, Stanford must ensure that all of its food programs aim to nurture the well-being of its students. 

In the meantime, avenues for smaller, student-led change exist! Thanks to R&DE’s successful student engagement initiatives, students can find paid work as Dining Ambassadors. A Dining Ambassador for Arrillaga explained to me that, while he doesn’t get much feedback from students, the Late Night administration actively seeks student feedback and is willing to change the menus accordingly. Whether or not you go to Late Night, make your voice heard. Locate and share feedback directly with your dining representatives, propose specific healthful alternatives to late-night programs and offer ideas for other possible outputs for late-night resources during the day. 

Best of all, avoid it altogether. Encourage your friends to go to bed early and work in the morning — rather than risk succumbing to the temptation of late-night eating. If we can’t end late-night programs, we can at least ensure that healthier and more environmentally friendly, plant-forward options are available. The benefits will span students’ transcripts and well-being — and long-term lifestyle habits, health, and the environment. 

As a midnight string cheese thief, I never got caught. The same can be said of my appearances at Late Night. You’ll never find me there.

Contact Grace Wallis at gwallis ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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