Content warning: This column contains references to disordered eating.
Sharp stomach pains distracted me as I sit in a CS section during my first quarter at Stanford in the fall of 2017. I hadn’t eaten enough that morning, as my mind convinced me to take a very small portion of the “healthiest” vegetarian food I could find in the dining hall. I was too stressed to even attempt a dining hall lunch, and was now stuck waiting until dinner.
After thinking about my hunger for most of the section, I made my way to the dining hall after class, but I could bring myself to eat only a plate of grilled cauliflower. And before I even finished that, it was time to go to my nighttime economics section.
The specific type of disordered eating I experience has not been diagnosed, but it can be described as a compulsion to eat less than needed when I’m either in social settings or when I have trouble estimating the amount of food I’m consuming.
In theory, Stanford’s dining halls present students with the opportunity to eat as much as they need given its buffet format. Yet students like me may struggle to take enough of any of the available food when they are charged with portioning it themselves.
Disordered eating does not affect everyone in the same way. What helps me could make matters worse for others and vice versa. Still, there are basic actions the University could take to be more supportive of students who may not get enough food otherwise.
- Provide pre-portioned options in dining halls, alongside their buffet-style counterparts, for students who experience stress associated with buffet-style dining. Stanford has been pre-portioning food throughout the pandemic, and it can continue that practice even when the buffet style returns. Like ordering food at a restaurant, receiving a predefined serving of something is much less stressful for me than portioning it myself, especially when surrounded by peers.
- Give all students on any meal plan unlimited swipes so they may visit and revisit any dining hall whenever they choose. Stanford Dining says the meal plan is required to ensure students have “easy access to food.” If that’s the case, it makes no sense that there is a limit to the number of swipes students receive on any of the offered plans, especially from a health and wellness perspective. Punishing students who “didn’t plan well” by withholding food is unacceptable. And it could be especially harmful to those who can’t afford to buy food whenever they realize they need it. This practice would also assist students who leave a dining hall without eating enough and can’t swipe back in for more.
- Educate the student body regarding disordered eating and the resources available on and off campus. Before I began at Stanford, I received an email from the University about how I identified as someone who had experienced disordered eating. I didn’t seek help and was never again contacted about it. The fact that this email was the only dedicated outreach, especially for someone with a history of disordered eating, is deeply concerning. Students could benefit from a session during NSO, but they need recurring outreach to remind them of resources available.
While changes to meal swipes, education and outreach on disordered eating did not happen in my time at Stanford, I caught a glimpse of what pre-portioned food could do to alleviate my stress when Stanford required it in dining halls due to the pandemic in March 2020.
Pre-pandemic, I was comfortable taking only a few things from dining halls: mostly the bagels, English muffins and veggie burger patties, because they were pre-portioned. Even then, I felt self-conscious about walking in and stuffing things into my backpack. Pandemic dining gave me increased options without any of the stress I experienced previously.
While brief, the comparison was stark — after all, I had spent two and a half school years under the buffet system. Because that system caused me so much stress, I chose to spend most of the money I received from on-campus work — money that not all students have at their disposal — toward day-to-day nourishment at restaurants and supermarkets.
Once I started buying my food instead of using the meal plan, my health improved, and I didn’t find myself painfully hungry. I wish Stanford had included this kind of option in its dining halls. Disordered eating can happen to anyone at any time. If someone finds themselves not feeling up to the buffet style at any point, the alternative should be available without extra cost.
Despite my struggles, I never sought help with my disordered eating from Stanford. But it’s not fair to place the blame squarely on my shoulders. Simple changes to campus dining could help students without relying on their time and energy when they are not ready to seek help.
While there are changes that Stanford needs to make, the below resources are already available to students:
- Vaden has a guide, including general online resources and Stanford-specific resources ranging from nutrition counseling and visits (solo and group appointments are unlimited for students living on campus) to CAPS sessions and Vaden medical services. It is also possible to organize group workshops via the Vaden Flourishing Alliance.
- Stanford Dining offers exemptions to the meal plan “for serious medical issues/disabilities or religious reasons.” It also offers “support for students with food allergies and specialized dietary requirements through the Food Allergies @ Stanford program.” That program’s webpage also has religious accommodations listed below the allergies section.
I was unaware of most of these resources before doing research for this article. That alone is a problem Stanford needs to fix. It’s also true, however, that I never used the resources I knew about. The University can’t rely on students to explicitly ask for help — so system-level changes like the ones I’ve described are so important.
Giving all students on a meal plan unlimited access to open dining halls, providing non-buffet options in the dining halls and reminding students of the resources available to them in a transparent and sensitive manner are not big asks. Yet they could have made a huge difference for my Stanford experience.
If nothing else, this is an issue Stanford should start addressing more proactively with students through outreach, surveys, open conversations and more. Disordered eating can happen to anyone at any time — lack of proactivity by the University can be damaging to all of us.