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Protein Goes to College

Claire Stremple | January 22, 2020


Universities teach more than academics. The self-taught course of study — call it Food Choices 101 — combines science, identity and values

“I’m kind of exhausted and I’m pretty hungry,” Molly says as she pulls a granola bar out of her backpack. An architecture student at the University of California, Berkeley, Molly has been in class all day, and like many of her peers, she sometimes eats snacks instead of meals because she’s so busy with coursework that she doesn’t always make it to the dining hall.

It may seem elementary, but learning how to eat to fully nourish yourself is an informal yet crucial component of college education.

“We believe that food plays a fundamental role in the maturation of the college student,” says Greg Hetfield, the national sales manager who runs the university segment of Hormel Foods’ Foodservice division.

He’s not just speaking figuratively; scientific research shows that the brain is still developing between the ages of 18 and 26. Research confirms that a student’s IQ can change during that time, too. As a supplier to colleges across the country, Hormel Foods is responsible for getting protein to hundreds of thousands of developing brains each year.

Protein is a necessary building block for this growth: it’s found in brain cells and the connective tissue around them. Proteins are crucial for synaptic strength, which is vital to learning and memory-building. The amino acids found in protein build neurotransmitters, which are essential for expanding knowledge.

Building Identity

The first stop of the day for most students is the dining hall. Here young adults away from home are planning their entire diet on their own for the first time. It’s not just where they fuel up for long days on campus, but also a place of experimentation, social interactions, identity-building and growing social awareness.

“College is a time when students have to navigate their own diet and figure out who they are nutritionally,” says Dr. Tanya Rodriguez, senior cultural anthropologist at Hormel Foods.

She says students use food to communicate their values. Students express their identities strongly in protein choices, be it a vegetarian or vegan diet, or the types of meat they choose to eat. Vegetarians, for example, will opt for dairy or vegetable proteins. Other students love the convenience and long-lasting nutrition of deli sandwiches to carry them through long afternoon lectures or keep them sharp in seminars.

Which proteins students choose isn’t the only way to assert identity through food choices. The source of the food matters, too. Increasingly, students are interested in provenance.

Applegate® products are a great success on campus,” Hetfield says. “Students are big into sustainability and knowing where their food comes from.”

There are also certain mornings when only old-fashioned bacon will do. It’s an invocation of home and comfort — and it doesn’t hurt that it’s delicious.

“That’s our biggest seller,” Hetfield says.

Active and Activist

Students aren’t finished thinking about food after choosing which proteins line up with their health goals, nutritional needs and personal values. On campuses across the nation, college students are more aware not only of what they eat, but whether others have access to meals.

This is part of what Dr. Rodriguez calls the “woke food” movement, a campaign growing among young adults who have concluded that it’s a privilege to have three meals a day. Recent studies show that hunger among college students is a more significant issue than previously thought. At Michigan State, one of the customers of the Hormel Foods Foodservice division, students are taking positive action to fight hunger on campus.

Michigan State chomps through about 300,000 pounds of meat annually; the school is one of the company’s biggest college accounts. Greg Hetfield says their dining halls serve up to 50,000 meals a day. “The sheer amount of food — you wouldn’t believe it,” he says.

Yet, large quantities of food doesn’t mean everyone gets a taste. Some students opt out of the university’s meal plan, and those with limited resources can sometimes go hungry. In 1993, Michigan State was the first college to open a campus-based food bank. It’s run by students and any student without a meal plan is eligible.

Snacks Instead of Meals

Time management is one of the most important skills college students learn. Often when students are hurrying to complete assignments and manage responsibilities, mealtimes suffer. In campus labs and studios across the country, Dr. Rodriguez says students replace meals with snacks. From using diet sodas to fend off hunger to nibbling granola bars, students let full meals slide as they chase their academic goals.

A snack may be all right for a quick fix, but college students need what Molly is looking forward to — wholesome, protein-rich meals. As she slips on her backpack, Molly is on her way to a full meal.

“I’ll have dinner soon,” she says, rolling her eyes in the direction of her granola bar. “And it will be filled with meat … not just snacks.”