The Humanist Dilemma: If Parents Are Paying, Can They Complain to the University?

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College Cafeteria from Hell: My son is a freshman in college. When we were touring schools, the entire family had a meal in the school’s cafeteria, and we had a few more when we brought him to orientation and when we visited during Family Weekend. The food was fine. And when he was complaining that when the parents aren’t around, it’s totally horrible, we didn’t believe him—until he sent a video of bugs crawling on a salad dressing container, and green mold on a slice of apple pie.

All students are required to take a cafeteria meal plan for at least the first two years, and we’re paying the full amount—no scholarship. I have an impulse to complain to the school, and I think my son would sort of like me to do that. But the school makes a big deal about how students should advocate for themselves and parents should not intervene, and I think that’s appropriate. I’ve urged my son to get together with other students and raise this problem with the administration, but he doesn’t want to. Meanwhile I worry that, while my child is otherwise very happy there, not only is he not getting optimal nourishment (which we are paying for), his health may actually be endangered. Should I step in?

—Swallow or Shout?

Dear Swallow,

I agree with the position that college students should be advocating for themselves about such matters. If the food is really that bad, and all students are required to patronize the cafeteria for at least their first two years, surely they have the capacity to raise their complaints with the administration. These days, with cell phone cameras, it’s easy to present evidence to the powers that be, who would be embarrassed if these unappetizing clips became viral videos. I’m not suggesting threatening to post them, but rather that this stuff is probably out there already and could become an embarrassment for the college and repel prospective students.

Also, as you mention, this sounds as though there may be serious health code violations. If there are things such as mold and bugs everyone can see, there may be dangerous conditions that aren’t as visible, such as food held at temperatures that breed deadly bacteria or other practices rendering items unfit for consumption. If no students dare confront the school administration (which is concerning), students could alert local health authorities—perhaps anonymously—and request an inspection. Maybe that would inspire the school to clean up.

However, in view of the potential health issues, parental intervention would not be completely out of line. But that would track right back to your son, who is the witness and has the standing to testify. And I wonder why students have not been raising an outcry about such egregious lapses, or why the administration would not be alarmed about tainted food and eager to rectify the situation. Perhaps the examples your son showed you are exceptions. Any institution putting out vast quantities of food every day—even the finest restaurants–will have occasional lapses.

Continue to encourage your son to handle this matter without involving you. In the meantime, if he can possibly take a minimal food plan and supplement with outside nourishment (most colleges have various restaurant and grocery options on and off campus, establishments offering take-out and delivery, as well as communal kitchens in the dorms where he could at least boil some eggs or a packet of ramen), encourage him to take advantage of those alternatives while pursuing the cafeteria issue. A crucial aspect of college education is learning to take care of oneself and to solve problems without parental intervention.