International Students Affected by American Food

5:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening. The doors to the cafeteria open. The wave of teenagers enters the cafe. Today there is a salad bar, a soup, main courses such as shrimp, beef, and potatoes, a choice of vegetables, and dessert.

Two students from Italy chatting at dinner

A line forms. Over 150 kids come eat dinner here. About 3 quarters of the cafeteria are filled. The dorm kids sit with their closest friends, their roommates, hallmates, dorm parents. It’s freezing outside so they’re glad to be indoors surrounded by the warmth of other people. They have an hour like this every day to talk to other people, hang out, catch up, and have fun before they have to go back to their rooms to do their school work.

This is normal for the international students. They do this every day for 10 months every year. For someone coming in from the outside, this might seem weird. People coming to the school after hours having fun, laughing, chatting. The cafeteria puts on music every day for the duration of the meal, so it’s not uncommon to see kids dancing and the cooks humorously shouting “no dancing in the kitchen.”

The international students eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day during the week, and brunch and dinner on the weekends. That’s 19 meals every week for over 40 weeks a year.

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These students are getting an early taste of college life as teenagers.

“I feel like if we pay that much [for the tuition] the food needs to be better,” says Ecem Unal ’18 from Turkey. Her peer, Skylar Nguyen ’18 from Vietnam has a similar opinion. “I think it’s so unhealthy it’s going to be bad for my health and others people’s health because it’s always fast food like really it’s not good, it may have high cholesterol in your body and it makes you fat and it’s not good. Both students felt less healthy after their first months in America.

Their experience is not unique to TA.

Amal Sami Almohanna, a graduate student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute followed 35 newly arrived International Students to see how their diet changed once at an American school and tracked how their body weight, blood sugar, and other health factors responded to the change in culture. This study found an average increase in weight of  2.79 lbs of all 35 students studying in America, however out of the participants who gained weight the average increase was 9 lbs. The students were tested 3 times for total caloric consumption, blood glucose, and systolic blood pressure, but there was not a big increase in those variables from testing 1 to testing 3. However, the frequency of consuming high-calorie American food items in testing 3 when compared with testing 1 increased. 

Most of the students at Thornton Academy are aware of the weight gain issue when they first arrive, but unfortunately, it’s also an issue for returning students coming to the school for another year. Students came up with different methods to stop slipping into bad eating habits, mainly working out regularly, avoiding eating too much in the cafeteria, and trying to mainly eat the food they buy themselves from organic sources. 

Ecem Unal ’18 preparing a meal at the Stasio Hall kitchen

The problem the international students are facing is similar to the Freshman 15 problem famous for first-year college students. According to Social Science Quarterly, the 15 in the name is mythical as freshmen gain between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds during their first year.

“I try to go to the gym every day of the week besides the weekend. This year there’s a lot of international students who go to the gym most days. There’s not really a one country majority on those trips, people from all over the world go,” says Polina Plitchenko ’19 from Ukraine. “I started going last year after the swimming season finished. There are around 25 people going to the gym every day. I miss the Ukrainian food a lot, the thing I miss the most is Borsh a traditional beetroot soup.”

International students see a big difference in the food quality, comparing to their home countries. A student from Spain said, “mainly, the food here in the US is all processed, even the one that you buy in organic stores. Back in my home country food is more healthy as it comes from natural sources.”

A Vietnamese student also agrees with food coming from more natural sources back in her country, she said, “I think we generally eat more vegetables where I’m from. We put less sugar in treats as well as generally consume less fast food comparing to the US.”

Cafeteria filled with international students

Interestingly one student faced an issue concerning how her body reacts to the American food “apparently I’m intolerant to lactose in the US, which I never experienced back in Ukraine,” said Dasha Sabirova ’19, a third-year student. This shows how much food must be different in the United States.

Even though students see a lot of differences between the American food and the one from their home countries, they do try to go around it and still eat healthily. “I actually expected the food to be worse. But it’s good. If you make good choices, you can eat good food,” says Riccardo Picozzi ’18 from Italy.

The issues the dorm students are facing can be a good lesson for Thornton’s seniors soon to go to college. The international students could give some good advice for soon to be freshmen.

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