This article, published today in the New York Times’ Health section, takes a look at how kids’ diets change seasonally, noting that, in the absence of school’s structured mealtimes and bouts of physical activity, they tend to gain more weight over the summer than than they do during during the winter months. There are any number of reasons why this might be the case, all of them well-explored by the text of the article. What it really got me thinking about, however, was the college meal plan, and why it is that my peers and I tend to gain weight at school (think the notorious, and definitely not apocryphal, freshman fifteen) and then go home to slim down and clean up during our vacations.

This is due in large part, I think, to the general structure of college dining: the pre-paid all-you-can-eat meal plan regularly required of freshmen across the country. This promotes a cramming mentality, encouraging students to make the most of their already spent dollars by consuming enough calories to keep them full until the next meal slot begins. It’s a system interested in economies of scale and the convenience of the institution rather than the desires of the individuals who use it; and while this is a reasonable way to run a business, it’s hardly a good method for nourishing and sustaining a group of people.

There are other, easier targets (binge drinking, lack of exercise, poor sleep schedule) that are easy to point to and impossible to write off as culprits in collegiate weight gain. The point is that, in going to college, we are often forced to buy into the full package deal: we eat, sleep, breathe and read within the confines of an institution that has a vested interest in making and storing up money. Again, it’s not this practice in itself that is reprehensible; it’s the cost of that mentality to the community that is problematic. A number of schools have recently cut ties with their dining services providers, moving away from the practice of contracting out their purchasing and instead focusing in on providing local or sustainable options to students. This is, undoubtedly, a step in the right direction: it means that students, stumbling bleary-eyed into the dining hall after a sleepless night of boozing, will be provided with more nutritionally sound options than they previously had been.

Still, though, there is the problem of the students themselves–or, I should say, ourselves. As the NYT article points out, regardless of what’s being served on these elementary school meal plans, the fact that they provide some structure cuts down on weight gain significantly. We who grew up in this system then tend to rely on others to make food decisions for us, trusting that we’ll be fed well and properly. And so, until we take it upon ourselves to think critically about what we put in our mouths, to understand our bodies’ needs and to respond to them, the changes made by universities are only stop-gaps. Eventually we will emerge into a world where there are no dining halls, where we will have to buy and cook our meals for ourselves. We can’t rely on institutions to teach us how to do it; it’s time for this generation to learn to eat wisely, all by itself.