Food For Thought : Notes on the New Commons Menu

CONTENT WARNING : eating disorders are discussed

When one searches for the Bates Commons Menu online, a new website greets their eyes in comparison with years past. This new website is equipped with nutritional information ranging from the sodium content of buttermilk ranch dressing to the caloric value of the cookie-dough ice cream that we all adore on Sunday Sundae. Dining, Conferences and Campus Events (DCCE) has worked extremely hard for the last two years in providing Bates’s students with this knowledge. But how helpful or harmful is this site for the Bates community?

As someone who is recovering from an eating disorder and has an ever fluctuating relationship with Commons, I was both delighted and dismayed by the email that all Bates students received in mid-August announcing the completion of the NetNutrition site. Assistant Vice President of the DCCE Christine Schwartz wrote in her email about how the site aims to “provide easily accessible nutritional and allergen information…as well as enhanced support for those with eating concerns and food questions.” Schwartz also noted how “individual nutrition counseling” is being offered this year via a registered dietician and offered contact information for those seeking one-on-one guidance. I sincerely believe that the website itself is well-intentioned and that Schwartz was right to note that counseling available at Bates. However, it is ecessary to recognize that body image and eating disorders are very real issues in our present digital age of YouTube, VSCO girls, and social-media influencers and that this site has the potential to cause harm. In this article, I wish to delve into the nitty-gritty of how the NetNutrition site can be educational and empowering for us if we use it in a positive way, while recognizing that we need to be cautious of its ability to toxically influence our eating choices.

First, let’s break it down and look at some of the positives of the new site. First and foremost, I believe that the addition of this nutritional information will prove to be extremely beneficial for those managing diabetes, allergies, those who are recovering from an eating-disorder, or those who simply wish to cultivate a healthier diet and want to know more about what the food in Commons contains. Lily Harding ’23 spoke to this point when she said that she “sometimes uses the nutritional information to see how much iron or calcium an item has” and how the site is “helpful to me because I really have to pay attention to make sure I get enough of those nutrients.” Considering solely the site, it seems to be an informative rebooted version of the Commons menu, intended to help Bates’s student body.

Now, let us consider the negative effects that the site could have on its audience. The NetNutrition site documents very specific nutritional facts, down to the macro and micronutrient content, ingredients, calories, and more. Having these numbers and statistics available provides an opportunity for people to count calories and track their food intake, which could encourage the development of an unhealthy relationship with food or even an eating disorder. Maddie Feldmeier ’22 thoughtfully said, “Things like this are always controversial. There are different implications for every individual.” Feldmeier has been open about her past struggles with an eating disorder and added, for those with a past or present struggle with eating, how resources such as the new Commons menu have “the tendency to be challenging.” She concluded by saying, “This is not true for everyone…having the information available but not having it as part of the menu would be a really helpful compromise.”

Overall, I believe that the NetNutrition site is a fantastic tool that the DCCE worked very hard to make and we should appreciate the time and effort that when into its creation. I also believe that if abused, the new online menu has the capacity to steer some students down an unhealthy path with food. That being said, as students of Bates and diners of Commons we have the power to encourage ourselves, our friends, and our teammates to use the site in a way that manifests a positive dining experience for everyone at Bates. Here’s to cultivating that culture!