On Feb. 6, a campus wide email was sent to all students titled “Portioning of Food in Cowan.” Sent by General Manager of Centre College Dining Services Michael Nagorka, the email focused on potential gender bias in food distribution. The email stated that “It has recently been brought to my attention that several students feel a bias exists with the portioning of food in Cowan Dining Hall. Specifically, it has been described as a gender bias with women receiving a smaller portion of a menu item vs the size portion that men receive.”

In order to understand this issue, it is important to understand how Cowan classifies portions. The staff has specific guidelines that categorize what equals a portion. There are two levels to this, portion and portion factor. A cordon bleu chicken patty would equal 1 portion. This is easy to dictate because it is obviously one entity. Other foods may be given a portion factor, which can slightly expand on this ratio. Brussel sprouts may have a 0.5 portion factor because not as many are consumed in one sitting. Chicken wings might be given a 3.0 in order to counter for demand. Typically, each student receives 1 portion (or portion factor) of the requested food, unless that student asks for more.

This gender biased portion sizes problem first came to Nagorka after a meeting that included Vice President and Dean of Student Life Randy Hays. “The issue first came up after a couple of CentreTerm classes addressed the issue. [Dean Hays] said that, based on his interactions, there seemed to be several people who thought this as an issue,” Nagorka said.

There are two different potential problems that this debate presents.  The first is the concern that portions are not given to students for a variety of reasons, such as saving that food for a specific group on campus. “If that is the case, that is absolutely wrong. If there is a certain group, then they need to make more food. That is an issue we need to deal with, and I need to be told that by the students. We don’t pull food for teams. We can’t do that. We say it is an all-you-can-eat buffet, then it needs to be that,” Nagorka said.

The other facet of this problem is based off of concerns that women receive less food then men at the three served sections in Cowan. “This includes instances where females feel proportions for them are substantially less than a male on the campus. I don’t believe that that is the mindset of the staff. [The staff] gets to know the students and knows how much food that student typically asks for,” Nagorka said.

For example, a particular male may always ask for four pieces of chicken. Because the staff member is used to this request by this student, she may automatically put four pieces of chicken on his plate. A female behind him may only get one piece of chicken following that encounter and believe she is not receiving an adequate portion. “I can see that perception saying there is a gender bias. I think there is a fine line between what is customer service and knowing your customers versus ‘I’m picking on a specific gender.’ If the person doesn’t ask, they should never be denied unless there is limit based on what can produce per equipment,” Nagorka said.

The complaint originally trickled down from discussions in several CentreTerm classes. Sophomore Christina Colón took “Woman, Body, and Culture” with Associate Professor of Anthropology Dr. Andrea Abrams and explained how this issue came up in her class. “We were talking about appetite and its relation to female perception. So we were talking about how it is seen as inappropriate for women to eat a lot, especially in public situations and dates,” Colón said.

Her class discussion then turned to how this is reflected in our own culture. “Someone mentioned that Cowan seems to favor guys in terms of portion sizes and how the football players will get like three to four pieces of chicken without asking and girls get one. If you ask for more you get weird looks. Some were even told they couldn’t have it or they didn’t have enough.” Colón was surprised to receive Nagorka’s email last month and found it humorous following her class discussion.

It may be an issue of perception, and it may be an issue of bias. But as Cowan is an all-you-can-eat buffet, portion sizes should not be an issue, regardless of gender. If you have comments or concerns regarding anything with dining services, comment cards at the front exit can be used to provide feedback.

Skip to toolbar