Nourishment in New Haven

At the end of January, Yale celebrated Citrus Week. In dining halls all across campus, students were furtively dumping Cara Cara oranges into their backpacks, slicing into blood oranges to see their red flesh, and stealing cupfuls of kumquats that would inevitably rot after days of sitting untouched on their common room tables. I’ve watched Yalies pilfer, redistribute, waste, and smash these fresh fruits. It’s as though fresh produce is something foreign to the Yale student body.

On-campus students certainly have difficulty finding access to affordable healthy food. Cami Arboles, DC ’20, described the cost of the meal plan: “Per week, it can feed a family of four shopping at Whole Foods!” Durfee’s and other meal plan cafés have even begun to sell the once-free plastic flatware for 25 cents each. So, despite the fact that the dining halls serve good food, many juniors and seniors–16 percent of the Yale student body–move off-campus, delighted to escape from the convenient but expensive traps of the Yale meal plan.

Still, the space to feed ourselves doesn’t quite ensure that we’ll know how to do it. How do we recreate that variety of vegetables, starches, and proteins in our apartments? How do we eat healthily—whatever that may mean?

Yale students have a diverse range of diets: some of us may have cut out gluten due to health-fad hysteria, others may be lactose intolerant, and everyone at Yale knows a vegan or two. But most of us seem to agree on what being healthy means. Every time I interviewed a student or professor, I began by asking for their conception of a healthy diet, and every answer was more or less the same: a diet lower in meat and animal products with as much fresh produce as possible. But when I asked where they buy those essential fruits and vegetables in New Haven, people admitted that they have trouble. 

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Sterling Professor of English, remembers a time before Elm City Market and the Stop & Shop on Whalley Ave. This semester, instead of teaching, Yeazell is actually enrolled in Directed Studies. She’s a student, sitting alongside first-years despite the decades between them. She’s living alone, taking classes, cooking for one—she’s basically living the life of an off-campus Yale student for the year. On a Sunday morning in G Café, she reminisced about a Korean grocery that used to sell wonderful produce before it closed. “Nothing’s as good,” she remarked sadly. When I asked about Stop & Shop produce, she made a face.

It’s tricky to cook healthy food for one. “My veggies aren’t as varied as they should be, and I’ve thrown food away. That never used to happen in our old lives,” she admitted, referring to the time when she and her late husband lived in Bethany, Conn., and took turns cooking for each other. “Sometimes I don’t feel like fussing for myself.” Despite this, she has tons of cooking ideas. She gave me suggestions for pasta dishes and huge salads delectable enough to finish by herself. “I make a refrigerator-rising challah bread that I’ll send you. And after this I’m going to make a quiche that I like… it’ll make four slightly repetitive dinners!” She’s more than willing to freeze her homemade bread to make it last and go shopping as often as possible in order to buy small portions that she can actually finish. As she cooks, she listens to podcasts. “I like that time more than I thought I would,” she said. “I thought it’d be very lonely. I used to think, ‘Will I want to cook?’ And I do. I do.”

After Professor Yeazell and I finished our coffees, I stopped next door at Elm City Market, immediately stepping into several rows of nutrient supplements. Everything is branded as immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory, digestion-improving. When I poked around a little more ambitiously, I noticed wild price jumps. Far above the $3 Skippy peanut butter was $24 almond butter. The only feasible Elm City grocery list, I discovered, is made up of unfancy staples: oatmeal, sweet potatoes, canned tomatoes, tinned fish, unpackaged chard or spinach, and perhaps some small cheese portions from the sample bin. The tinned fish could be an eco-friendly protein in a sizable salad, made the way Professor Yeazell might like it. Fresh greens and canned tomatoes could turn into a pasta primavera with delicate vegetables.

Sonali Durham, BK ’21, peruses the internet to find fun, easy, and nutritious meals to cook with her friends. “I love Bon Appétit, Healthyish, and Basically—all their sites,” she said. The Bon Appétit magazine franchise and its spinoffs provide her and her five kitchenmates with foodie inspiration. One friend with a flair for accounting has created a spreadsheet that keeps track of how many people are home for dinner on a given night; it also assigns grocery and cooking duties in pairs. If someone with a car is home, they travel to Trader Joe’s, the far-away Mecca of organic, natural, highly branded food. When they go home to cook in what used to be the home of Tangled Up in Blue, the folk music group on campus, I can’t help but imagine their cooking adventures overlaid by a nostalgic mandolin tune. When we spoke, she’d just made a spicy, ginger-y stew, and on another night, vegetarian tacos. 

Still, not everyone’s living situation is organized around a shared cooking culture. Arboles, for example, feels like she’s usually cooking for one in her shared apartment. She’s a huge Trader Joe’s fan. “Shop the perimeter!” Arboles insisted. “That’s where the greens are, and I eat so many greens. That’s where the veggies and unprocessed meats are.” Generally, her method avoids the inner aisles of packaged, processed items sold at the most egregious prices. On any given Sunday, she can probably be found roasting veggies and meat with lots of spices, a low-maintenance way to cook a lot at once, and storing them in Tupperware to eat throughout the week. Then she’ll post it on Instagram to share it with other enthusiastic college cooks. 

Annie Cheng, ES ’20, also recommends Tupperware and frozen foods as a way to navigate the scarcity of produce outlets. Cheng has been cooking in kitchens and restaurants since she was 15. She is writing two senior theses related to the cooking industry and just recently accepted a position as a prep cook at Tarry Lodge, a local New Haven restaurant. When she’s meal prepping, freezable and Tupperware-able meals like stews are her go-to recipes. “This campus should have more microwaves!” she declared. “Frozen foods get a bad rep, as well as canned foods.” Many frozen vegetables are actually stored at the peak of their nutrition, compared to conventional produce sitting out in the aisles. And the heat of the canning process, I learned from Cheng, actually activates some key nutrients in tomatoes. “People should buy in bulk what they’re sure they’ll eat,” she said—foods like rice and nuts, for example. 

There’s an alternative form of shopping on the rise, which side-steps grocery store disappointments. Both Arboles and Cheng mentioned grocery delivery services like Imperfect Foods, Misfits Market, Thrive Market, and InstaCart. While Cheng is involved in the professional restaurant industry, Arboles is an Instagram health blogger with a colorful feed of meals. But even with such polar cooking histories, they have both turned to the Internet to feed themselves. 

Every month, Imperfect Foods members receive a box of unpackaged items like not-round apples, too-small potatoes, funny-colored asparagus, and surplus dairy items—the food industry’s rejects. Cheaper avocados means more delicious, ’grammable toasts; low-priced dairy means you could choose the grass-fed, humane stuff; cheap jars of spices with crooked labels means more well-seasoned sauces. Often, one can throw in a few more items like kombucha, coffee, or tea, which find their way to Imperfect Foods when a company changes their logo or label and no longer sells its prior packaging (and it happens more than you’d think). Buying the “imperfect” surplus means reduced prices—because otherwise, these supposedly unsellable products go to waste. “Thrive Market is also a good one,” Cheng said. Thrive Market offers big discounts on healthy staples. “They have a free or discounted student membership,” she informed me—which sent me right to the website to subscribe. They have a great selection of gluten-free baking staples like almond flour, healthy cooking fats like ghee, olive oil, or coconut oil, and quite a few other gluten-free, grain-free, or dairy-free items. For anyone shopping with dietary restrictions or health concerns, Thrive Market beats Stop & Shop’s selection and Elm City’s prices for sure.

If you have the time and mind to travel around town, hit Ferraro’s for meat, Hong Kong Market for produce, and Trader Joe’s for pantry staples. Or, you can make the food come to you—the solution to a Yale foodie’s lifestyle might just be on the Internet. No matter the method, there’s a reason to consider giving up the convenience of the dining halls for cheaper homemade meals. Five friends in a kitchen with a pound or two of pasta among them; someone who loves you enough to chop all the garlic; a podcast to listen to while you spend time over the stove, stirring something fragrant just for yourself—learning to live a life where you can feed yourself, not to mention save countless meal-plan dollars, might just be worth the trouble.

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