This $5.74 Meal Improves Mental Health

This .74 Meal Improves Mental Health
This .74 Meal Improves Mental Health

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23-Ingredient $5.74 Meal Plan Improves Mental Health

After reading that the most popular and cheapest lunch in San Francisco is a $6 steamed bun filled with junk mail, I challenged a college intern to create a $6 meal.

The most popular and cheapest lunch in San Francisco is a $6 steamed bun filled with spam and dipped in gravy, so I challenged one of our college interns to create a $6 healthy meal. “

— Alexia Parks, CEO/President, 23ZIP, Inc.

BOULDER, COLORADO, USA, April 18, 2023 / — I challenged one of our college interns to create a $6 healthy meal. He reported:

College is always portrayed as the most formative years of a person’s life, from making new friends to experiencing a tremendous opportunity to enhance personal skills.

In this context, many students find themselves under high levels of stress, anxiety and depression, with research estimating that 60% of all students meet criteria for one or more mental health issues. By 2021, this is a 50% increase over 2013. As our own university keeps making the top 10 lists for the most stressed and depressed students, it’s clear that something needs to change if we want our students to be healthy and productive.

The method our school uses is Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). CAPS is a traditional approach to the mental health epidemic, in which students sign up for counseling and, if a psychiatrist sees fit, receive medication. While this is a resource some students need, it may be time for colleges to take a holistic approach to combating our student mental health epidemic. The solution I’m proposing is not a far-fetched snake oil pitch, but a very simple one of investing in healthier food options for eating above ground.

In 2001, the term microbiome was coined by Joshua Lerderberg. The term is used to describe the 50 trillion bacteria that inhabit our guts. These bacteria prevent leaky gut by producing neurotransmitters that reduce anxiety, depression and stress. The microbiome is a complex system. What has been found is that a lack of soft soluble fiber causes many health problems. Modern Western diets, as well as those offered by UVA in Ground Meals, need to focus on high fiber meals.

Today, the average American consumes only 12-18 grams of fiber per day, while adult women are recommended to consume 25-32 grams of fiber per day to maintain a healthy microbiome; adult men 30-35 grams. As a result of the lack of fiber in the diet, there has been an overall increase in metabolic diseases across industrialized countries as people mainly eat highly processed foods.

If a student is looking for a highly nutritious meal kit with soft soluble fiber, UVA Dining can be hard to find. The best option for a healthy diet is “The Castle”, which offers the best vegetable options. However, since this option is only available in older residence halls, it limits many upperclassmen, who spend most of their classes in the central field. Another option for those using a meal change is one of Rising Roll’s salads. The downside to these salads, however, is that the vegetables they use are iceberg or romaine lettuce, both of which have far less nutritional value than dark leafy greens like spinach or kale.

I recently started working at a social enterprise called 23ZIP First Food Responders, whose mission is to help provide healthy and affordable meals to people living in marginalized communities and in urban or rural food deserts. In working with them, I was challenged to create meals that were nutritionally compliant and as affordable as possible. I decided on two options. First up is the dinner salad. I made four servings with nine different veggies, three fruits, and a protein of my choice for $6.04 per meal. Using the same nutritional requirements and serving quantities, I made a cabbage-based stir fry for $5.74.

Both meals were nutritious and delicious. When I talk to someone who eats my meal, they say “stir-fry tastes good and makes my body feel good” To me, this simple experiment taught me that it’s possible to create meals that are both healthy and affordable.

It is more evident than ever that our universities need to implement changes to maintain a healthy and productive student body. The shortcut to change is better access to fiber-rich, nutrient-dense vegetables through meal exchanges for all students and staff on campus.

Nathan Henderson [Environmental Thought and Practice and Economics ’25].

Alexia Park
23ZIP Company
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