In College and in Search of Free Food
The only place that has more free food than Costco is college. I’m not kidding—if you know where to look, you can get at least one meal a day at no cost. Since I’m now on a serious, serious budget, I’m taking full advantage of this phenomenon and mooching as much as possible.
The first place I start is always the online page for school events. For example, next week there’s an info session for a one-year economics grad program—with pizza. I’m totally willing to show up to the meeting and listen to their spiel in exchange for a couple slices of pie. Last Saturday I attended the on-campus CultureFest, where I learned about Spanish, Native American, and Asian cultures—and scooped up enchiladas, corn on the cob, and kimchi. And I’m really looking forward to Soup & Substance, a social justice discussion with complementary soup.
Since I live in an on-campus apartment, I also benefit from a host of housing-sponsored events. However, these are pretty popular, and if I want to be fed, I have to act strategically. Every week there’s Cooking in the Canyon (we live in a canyon), where our community advisors give us a recipe and ingredients and “show” us how to prepare a meal (really, everyone just stands around and watches them cook). Then we grab the finished product and run. I always show up 10 minutes early so I can secure a space in the front of the line; this was especially wise on the Chili Cheeseburgers and Fries Night, as they only had 50 patties for around 150 hungry college kids, and I definitely got one of those 50 patties. I may have been a pacifist before, but a budget really changes a girl.
And although I have a serious sweet tooth, I never buy cookies or candy from the store anymore. Every couple of days, I make my rounds to Club Services, the advising center, the English Department, Student Resources, and the Honors College office, all of which are conveniently located within a quarter mile of each other. Each office has a bowl brimming with fun-size candy bars and Tootsie Pops, which the secretaries (who know me by name now) eagerly push like drug dealers trying to hook a new client. I’m more than happy to oblige. I just opened my desk drawer to see how big my stash was, and I think I have enough chocolate to sustain the population of Wisconsin. During finals season, this will be just enough to get me through my last test.
Another one of my new policies is never saying never—to offers for food, that is. If my friend offers me some of the pancakes she’s making, I’m saying yes. If there’s birthday cake up for grabs, I’m eating it, calories be damned. The way I see it, the food I’m getting gratis displaces the food I’d be preparing for myself otherwise, thus stretching my groceries even farther. My nutrition book says the number one factor for food-related decisions is taste, but for right now I’m making my choices based on money.
These are all fairly common strategies, but I’ve also done things like downloading LeftoverSwap, a location-based app that connects you to people nearby who can’t finish their meal and want to give it away. The town I live in, San Luis Obispo, has some amazing restaurants, so even though the concept of eating a stranger’s leftovers freaked me out, I was also really hopeful I’d snag some delicious food. (Unfortunately, even though I constantly checked the app, no one ever posted on it. It was worth a try.)
I also convinced my friends to have a freegan lunch with me. Okay, technically freeganism is dumpster-diving, but we defined it as the much more hygienic “appetizers” at Trader Joe’s, “main meal” at Costco, and “dessert” at the local frozen yogurt store (we walked in, sampled several flavors, and then walked out. I feel a little guilty about this, but I got froyo there every day last year, so not too guilty.)
I have a whole Google calendar devoted to free food holidays. On July 11th, I visited three different 7/11s for the free Slurpees. IHop has a National Pancake Day in February, and I plan on gorging myself on flapjacks. Other celebrations I’m super excited for: Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day, Krispy Kreme’s National Donut Day, and Quiznos’ National Cookie Day. On Halloween I threw on a witch hat and walked down to Chipotle—those in costume got a $3 burrito.
I would’ve never anticipated the depths I’d sink (rise?) to in order to save money on food. Granted, it definitely hasn’t been the healthiest couple of months, but least I’m not eating Top Ramen—unless someone starts giving it away, that is.
This is the third column in a multi-part series.
Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who loves writing… and dessert. Follow her on Twitter @ajavuu.
Photo: Kevin Gong