A few weeks ago, Sci posted on making Lab Cuisine. A couple of people responded well to this, and suggested that I post more on cheap eating as a grad student. Sadly, these people are deluded. Sci can't cook. At ALL. Lab Cuisine, pasta, and bean stews (which I can make, tho the recipe is not mine) are about what I live on, trying to wedge in fruit and veggies wherever they might be able to fit into the budget. Welcome to life on stipend.
But there are some things about food that Sci does know. It's how to eat, and particularly how to forage, like a grad student. And so today I would like to speak on the pros, cons, and types of Free Food.
You think it's funny and weird to smell free food from a distance? Clearly you have never been a grad student.
Free food is an interesting phenomenon. How is detected? Should you feel guilty about getting it? Is there a line at which pursuit of free food becomes tacky? Sci has had many young grad students, eyes full of shining hope, ask her these questions. And in these trying times, it is harder than ever to find free food. And thus, to you, she will spread her knowledge. Use it wisely, and not for evil.
The guiding principles of Free Food:
1) The Heisenberg Food Uncertainty Principle: Heisenberg mastered this principle while in grad school. It states that you cannot know both where the free food is, and how much (and of what quality) there will be by the time you get there.
2) Evolution of Free Food acquisition by natural selection: Free food will go to those who are most crafty at obtaining it, and thus those are most crafty will get the most free food. They will then pass this trait on to their grad student offspring. Those who are not sly, or merely have too much pride to obtain free food, will die out as free food seekers and much seek out another niche in the grad school environment (the niche we call 'starving', usually accompanied by the Starbucks coffee they REFUSE to give up).
3) The dopamine hypothesis of Free Food addiction: One of my personal hypotheses, this states that food obtained illicitly and free results in a stronger dopamine signal than food obtained by conventional means. Thus, those who seek Free Food out find it initially rewarding, and are more likely to seek it out again. Soon, however, habit will take over, and you'll see addicted grad students haunting the halls and seminar rooms on certain days of the week, hoping for a hit. Sci herself has no shame in this regard, and has been known to edit dissertations for free pizza.
4) The opponent-process theory of Free Food: Another one of my personal hypotheses. Based on the opponent process theory of addiction, this states that at first, Free Food is rewarding, but its often inferior quality causes withdrawal symptoms of bloating and Food Coma. These negative effects force you to seek out more Free Food, focusing specifically on sugar in order to get out of your Food Coma. You can see the vicious cycle begin.
5) The Inverse correlation between quality and quantity: This is a hypothesis that I am currently developing, but it appears that it may hold true in most situations. The more likely there is to be abundant Free Food, the more likely it is to be of seriously inferior quality. Donuts, I'm looking at you, here.
Free Food Types
Free Food can generally be divided into three main areas: Carbs and Crap, the Stuff you Work for, and Jackpot. I'll go through each of these in turn, and talk about their pros and cons.
A: Carbs and Crap: This is the most common type of Free Food in Sci's experience. This usually includes most breakfast items, including donuts (VERY common), bagels (also abundant), muffins, pizza (so common it hurts), and cake (special occasions, but if it's a sheet cake, usually there's a lot left over. A good sheet cake can feed a veritable host of grad students). Often also includes chips and crackers, and of course cookies. These types of Free Foods can often be found in the common areas after faculty meetings, at many seminars, and in various lab areas on special occasions such as birthdays or Christmas in July. Unfortunately, with the economy the way it is, Free Food at meetings has diminished in amount and quality, but most faculty members still refuse to meet at 8am without significant breakfast incentive. I also include coffee in this grouping, though it's obviously not crap, it's usually found along with the breakfast food.
Pros: pretty easy to find, you can probably get access to these types of Free Food once a week in the worst scenarios.
Cons: many young grad students think free cake is a GREAT idea! And to some extent, it is. But as free carbs are abundant, they get old REALLY quickly. And nothing induces Food Coma quite like a few donuts or cake. In terms of productivity, these are no help. After a while, you may even end up passing up such crap as time goes on. Ok, who are we kidding. You won't, it's free. Also, with bagels in particular, what gets left over is often some pretty crazy stuff. Onion bagels with strawberry cream cheese? Yikes.
B: The Stuff you Work For: This includes food that is only available at the meetings that you have to GO to. This includes lunchtime meetings, seminars, etc. The vast majority of the time, the best food is only available at the seminars you want to go to the LEAST ("ooooh! Full box lunch! At an hour long serminar on...hospital fiscal policy..."). It's working for your food, or at least taking time out from your REAL work to be somewhere else for an hour in the hopes of real food.
Pros: The food is often of higher quality. You can sometimes get full box lunches (though if you arrive late, you're stuck with the broccoli salad covered in mayo, and the baloney sandwich with pepper jack. You've been warned), and some are more potluck style, with meatballs on sticks and cheeses and stuff.
Cons: Great. Another seminar on how to use Excel for fun and profit...
C: Jackpot!!!!: The rarest form of Free Food, Jackpot food is hard to find, but worth staying around and stuffing your face, and then grabbing a plate and squirreling some away for later. This includes full box lunches (even better for squirreling, comes in its own packaging!), fruit trays, veggie trays, hummus, and anything with a chocolate fountain involved (Sci saw one once. It was...so beautiful...*sniff*...). Now, at first glance, a young grad student might think "what?! veggies are JACKPOT!? NO! Pass me the CAKE!" To this I say, wait until you are a third year, pale from lack of sunlight, and able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables maybe once a week. Maybe. After a lifetime of ramen, pasta, rice, and more ramen, veggie trays gleam before your eyes like a nutritional oasis. Fruit looks and tastes like the nectar of Mt. Olympus. And a box lunch?! YES!!!!! Get two and you just got two free meals.
Pros: Actual nutritional value. No Food Coma. Fresh veggies...mmm...
Cons: This stuff is VERY rare. Best times to look for Jackpot-type Free Food is around graduation or thesis defense times. Often there are parties after such rites of passage, and these will often result in veggie trays. Retirement parties are another option, as well as times surrounding traditional holidays. Sometimes you can find those trays of those wrap slices, usually good stuff, but can come in some odd flavors. Box lunches are often under the heading of the Stuff you Work for, but can sometimes be found as leftovers in common areas. You still usually get stuck with baloney and pepper jack.
Free Food Detection
Haunting the halls is time consuming, but can be worth it in some scenarios. Look for large gatherings of people, preferably those who are well-dressed. The more suits, the higher the food quality.
Your email box is your hunting blind. Sign up for seminar announcements, meeting announcements. Know your faculty meeting schedule for your department. When you see a flyer for a seminar or meeting, your eyes should immediately focus on the bottom, where phrases such as "lunch will be provided" are what you're looking for. It's a lot easier than it seems, really.
And now, a word on Free Food Etiquette.
How should one approach the Free Food? If it's something common, it's often just left in a common area for the scavengers. All bets are off there. Maybe want to make sure that no one sees you running off with half a dozen bagels. It's not nice, leave some for someone else. If it's Something you Work For, have the courtesy to at least LOOK like you're paying attention in the meeting or seminar. This is not just courtesy, it's common sense. If the seminar is weekly, you don't want people giving you the eye if you're obviously sleeping every week. As for the Jackpot-type food, it's best if you mingle while people are around. You'll get the best quality. But this only really works if you KNOW the person for whom the food is technically for. Don't just walk into some new PhD's party like you own the place. At least go as a friend of a friend. It's courtesy. Otherwise, wait until the room has cleared, and the food is alone and defenseless. Go for it.
Now, there's a certain...feeling about Free Food. It doesn't do to talk about it too much. Don't boast to your lab as you head out to a different seminar every day that you're going to get free food, at least, not unless you invite them along. After a while, obviously and loudly pursuing every possible avenue of Free Food looks...mercenary. So, while you don't have to be sly, asking loudly about the Free Food all the time just looks naive. You have to cultivate an air of devil-may-care Free Food hunting. You don't CARE about the food. You just happen to be in the same room with it. All the time. Those who cultivate this air often end up with the best food. I think there's an attraction principle here somewhere.
But there's also another bit of etiquette. Always let the other grad students know where there is food to be found. A nod as you head out the door, a mention of the party down the hall. These things not only feed your friends, they can foster good will in the laboratory. It's more than nice, it's politics.
I would like to end this post with a plea to the professors out there: feed thy grad students. Remember how poor and hungry you were!? We are, too. And it's a good political move to feed your grad students. A well-fed student is a happy student, and one supplied with dinner is much more likely to work late (ok, we all work late, the fed one will work REALLY late). It makes us feel appreciated, and sometimes we might even think you CARE! And food is fuel. Supplied with even something as common as pizza, a grad student is good to go, and you might find that manuscript in your inbox in the morning.