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Malcolm Gladwell's Podcast Tackles College Dining Hall Food

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If you have vivid memories of the food served in your college dining hall, chances are that it's because it was very bad—or, perhaps, very good.

In "Food Fight," episode five of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell investigates why the quality of the food at two private liberal arts colleges in the Northeast differs so drastically, and what this says about their financial aid policies.


Why does food at Vassar incite widespread discontent, whereas the meals at Bowdoin (a comparable school, also in the Northeast) claim the title of "best college food in America"?

Gladwell's theory? That prioritizing top-of-the-line dining hall food means de-prioritizing financial aid; that school-wide lobster bakes and eggplant Parmesan pancakes attract students from wealthy backgrounds but detract from the mission of providing higher education to everyone.

You'll hear Gladwell's argument below:


Bowdoin has responded to the episode, calling it "a manipulative and disingenuous shot [...] filled with false assumptions, anecdotal evidence, and incorrect conclusions," and Gladwell himself has engaged in a bit of back-and-forth Twitter sparring with Bowdoin alums who are less than thrilled with his analysis.

Does the podcast simplify the problems of financial aid and university budgeting? Gloss over the commitments that Bowdoin has made to providing monetary support for its admitted students?

One oversight is obvious: Gladwell skips over the more food-focused questions, such as where do Bowdoin and Vassar source their food from, and how does this affect their local food systems? How do the two institutions treat their employees, those preparing and serving the meals? And what happens to any leftovers or waste?

Perhaps those are inquiries for another episode (but I'd like to know the answers, regardless).

What do you remember about dining hall food? Tell us in the comments!