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Case study: despite bright spots, most campus food unhealthy

Only 12 percent of entrées and 36 percent of main dish salads served in and around California Polytechnic State University were found to be healthy, according to researchers at the university.

The case study assessed California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), a large public university in the Central Coast region of California, and found that only 36 of 314 entrées and 11 of 31 main dish salads were classified as healthy according to the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey (NEMS), which focuses on the availability, affordability, and quality of healthful food choices.

Between March and August 2015, Cal Poly researchers evaluated all 18 campus dining venues, two on-campus food stores, and 37 off-campus food stores. “Healthy” entrées and main dish salads were defined as having 800 or fewer calories (650 or fewer calories for a la carte burgers and sandwiches), no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. Healthy entrées were available in nine of the 18 on-campus dining venues.

Surprisingly, fast-food restaurants scored well, with one fast-food restaurant receiving the highest score for healthy food options. Sit-down restaurants received the lowest scores. On the positive side, the two campus food stores offered a wide variety of healthy food choices and did not charge more for them. They also offered more produce than typical convenience stores. Pharmacies, gas station convenience stores, and other convenience stores had less availability of healthy food compared with grocery stores, which offered the lowest prices for healthy food options.

Overall, campus dining venues differed widely in the healthfulness of their offerings. By providing more healthy side dishes and beverages, food courts made more healthy choices available.

“Given students’ necessary dependence on the campus food environment, universities have a responsibility to provide a food environment that facilitates and supports healthful eating, the study authors suggest.