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Bailey College of Science and Mathematics

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Study Sheds Light on Cal Poly Food Environment

Red Radish interior Restaurant's in Cal Poly's University Union like Red Radish, pictured, scored high in a recently released Campus Dining Assessment led by Kinesiology Professor Marilyn Tseng and student researchers. 


Is it possible to find healthy food on Cal Poly’s campus? The answer is yes — you just have to know where to look, according to the results of a unique study conducted by Professor Marilyn Tseng and a group of student researchers.

Tseng, who teaches in the Kinesiology Department, and student researchers spent five months analyzing the food and beverage options at 18 on-campus dining facilities, two on-campus markets and 37 food stores in San Luis Obispo.

“We were interested in finding out exactly what the food environment around Cal Poly looked like,” said Tseng, who said she spent years discussing the university’s nutritional environment prior to embarking on the study.

She said it was important to get an accurate and objective measure of Cal Poly’s food environment.

“If students want to eat healthy, there are places to do it,” Tseng said. “They just have to know where to go and what to choose to eat.”

The researchers used the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey (NEMS), which measures the nutritional quality, availability and price of food at restaurants and grocery stores.

Entrees and main dishes at on-campus dining venues were considered healthy if they contained no more than 800 calories, with 30 percent or fewer calories coming from fat and 10 calories or fewer coming from saturated fat. Burgers and sandwiches sold a la carte were considered healthy if they contained no more than 650 calories.

The team found that only 12 percent of all entrees served on campus were deemed healthful.

The NEMS also provides a score for eateries and markets. The University Union, which houses Chick Fil-A, 19 Metro Station, Ciao!, Red Radish and Starbucks Coffee, scored the highest, 44, out of a possible score 97.  The average score was 26.

The University Union scored high due to its large selection of side items, low- and zero-calorie beverages, and signage that encourages healthy eating.

The campus markets, with an array of high-quality fresh produce and other healthy options, also scored high. As a whole, Cal Poly’s results were on par with campuses of similar size nationwide, and in some cases, scored higher.

“The Cal Poly campus definitely has some amazing healthy options for students, but there are ways to improve the nutrition environment as a whole; such as promoting low-fat, low-calorie options on signage and photos in the food areas, and having better costs and ease of accessibility for healthier foods,” said Rachel Gipson, one of four students who conducted the research. 

Madison Fishler, who also worked on the study, agreed. She added that nutritional information could be made more easily accessible.

“As a nutrition student, I am interested in the food that I eat. So, I already knew the information was available to me, and I already knew to look online,” she said.

Both Fishler and Gipson said it was a unique experience to work on something that affects them directly and that the hands-on learning opportunity was invaluable.

“This research has definitely prepared me for my future. I've collected data in many labs before this, but never on a project of this magnitude,” Gipson said. “It was exciting to see the data and results we collected translated into actual statistics of the nutrition environment of Cal Poly.”

At the heart of the study was the desire to put Cal Poly’s food environment into perspective.

“With this research, we wanted to reassure people that there are plenty of options out there,” Tseng said. “We were motivated from the beginning to find out if there was room for change and improvement, and if there is, we wanted to find out where that improvement would be.

“I think this was the first step to see where Cal Poly is as a campus.” 

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