Mills: Northwestern’s Quarantine and Isolation Housing meals are inadequate

Kadin Mills, Columnist

Content warning: This story contains mentions of calorie counting, disordered eating, as well as accounts of unhealthy weight loss. 

I got the call around 10:15 p.m. “Do you need a ride?” 

“A ride?” I thought. The kind voice explained they were organizing a ride to take me to 1835 Hinman. I knew I’d spend Wildcat Wellness in isolation, but I had no idea it would all move so fast. I didn’t suspect infection, but I tested positive for COVID-19 after I arrived on campus from rural Michigan, a land where mask mandates are a thing of the past and vaccines might as well be a plot out of a Philip K. Dick novel. I packed and waited.

A gray van picked me up outside my dorm and escorted me to 1835 Hinman for Quarantine and Isolation Housing. There, I found amenities like toiletries, towels and sheets, as well as a case of water and milk. I also received a bag full of “14 days’ worth of snacks,” things like chips, pretzels and Rice Krispies; as well as “non-perishable breakfast items” — Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain bars (150 calories), Nature Valley Bars (100 calories), Pop-Tarts (370 to 400 calories) and assorted General Mills cereals (70 to 120 calories).

On the first day, my lunch and dinner added up to about 630 calories of cooked food. With both meals, students also receive a piece of hand fruit, about a cup of chopped fruit, as well as a small salad, also measuring about a cup. The fruit and salad account for about 110 calories. We usually receive a dessert as well, some very high in calories, but consisting of highly processed sugars and fillers. For that reason, I have omitted desserts in my calorie counts.

On my second day, my cooked lunch and dinner summed to 790 calories, and less than 500 calories the following days. On average, my regular Quarantine and Isolation portions (a breakfast item, lunch and dinner) as a vegetarian are around 800 to 1000 calories of real food.

In comparison, I estimate I eat about 1800 calories in a typical day, discounting snacks and dessert, as I am not known to be conservative with my dessert rations. I admittedly have struggled with disordered eating, and many days have no appetite or I forget to eat. Other days, I overeat. That said, I don’t count calories and have a hard time conceptualizing them. Instead, I decided to take a look at the NU Dining menu at Foster-Walker Complex Dining Hall, commonly known as Plex, and track a typical day.

I don’t have morning classes, so I’ve got time for breakfast: veggie sausages, eggs and coffee. If they’re fresh, a pancake or two. For lunch, a veggie burger and fries … or maybe pizza. I usually eat twice in the evening, so first I’ll have a big salad of fancy greens with red onion and carrots, topped with feta, craisins and balsamic vinaigrette. For second dinner, the blackened sweet potato sounds good, along with the risotto. I say I’d get green beans, but let’s be realistic.

To reiterate, I won’t skip a dessert and a decaf coffee in the evening.

All of that at around 1800 calories — versus 800. We definitely have a problem here.

I first called the Wellness Coordinator here at 1835 Hinman. She seemed shocked to hear about the quality of food, and directed me to Northwestern Dining.

I reached out to NU Dining with an, albeit emotionally charged, email detailing my questions, concerns and frustration I have felt given my previous experiences in dealing with NU during times of serious need. “I am upset. I am hungry,” I wrote. “I don’t feel fatigued as a symptom of COVID, but as a result of being deprived of nutrition, and as a result of attending an institution that has proven to me time and time again that I do not matter.”

My private correspondences with NU administrators were all but reassuring. Despite working to provide what they call adequate meals, they consistently cited the pandemic as the root of the issue. In the meantime, I would receive double portions. 

Since I first reached out to NU Dining, they have included fliers in our meals outlining options for double portions and requests. The flier also instructs students requesting meal corrections to text their name, room number and comments to (807) 600-3599. I also obtained a private email to a parent in which NU administrators state, “We are reviewing the menus and portion sizes to ensure they provide complete and nutritious meals to students with all types of diets.”

Additionally, I was told that students may request additional portions, snacks and other items from Plex’s dining halls and C-store. But according to the students I have talked to, getting these requests is hit or miss. Some students reported never receiving double portions, others never received the protein bars and orange juice they requested. 

In response to student feedback, Compass Group informed me a starch has been added to Rooted meals, and vegetables to the Flame menu. Compass did not comment on the size and quality of meals, positing that “safely providing nutritious and inclusive meals to students while they are in Q/I housing is top priority for us. Our dietitian and chef curated online Q/I menus reflect our dining options available for our students.”

Compass instead excuses the poor portions by explaining the strain of exponential increase in coronavirus cases, saying “this exponential growth has created some complexities to our traditional Q/I service model and we are adjusting resources and operations as quickly as possible.” 

In responding to my inquiries, NU Dining and Compass Group did not address policy regarding outside food and drop offs from friends and family. Additionally, they did not comment on potential changes to food rations for Quarantine and Isolation Housing occupants in the future.

In response, many students have resorted to tying bed sheets and trash bags together, fashioning makeshift ropes to hoist paper bags with food and other goods up to student’s rooms. Some lift paper bags, others mimic a stork lifting a swaddled baby burrito bowl from Chipotle Mexican Grill. I watched a student outside my window throwing things up to the third floor for her friend stuck in isolation.

Despite students having been reprimanded for similar attempts, 1835 Hinman’s occupants are steadfast and desperate. Memes circulate depicting students pushed to these lengths. Some students I spoke to even reported having experienced unhealthy changes in weight while in Quarantine and Isolation Housing last year.

NU is in a position of serious responsibility vis-a-vis student welfare and they are neglecting that responsibility. We want you to care. Give us enough food, not just (maybe) give us double portions if we ask nicely. An open access dining plan costs $6,993 this year and I just might ask for a refund.

This institution has effectively denied responsibility for our wellbeing. We need to honestly reassess the baseline of care that we are given and what we expect from one of the wealthiest institutions of higher education, one proving again to put profit before students. We shouldn’t need an additional portion in order to have enough food to eat. If that’s not obvious, we need to seriously reassess who is making decisions regarding nutrition at NU.

Kadin Mills is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.