On April 5, Dean of the College Chris Roellke sent students an email detailing the proposed meal plan changes that will be going into effect Fall 2017. Not only will Vassar be switching food providers from Aramark to Bon Appétit, but the college will also renovate the ACDC and switch to an all access mandatory meal plan. Though the changes are clearly striving for improvement to the dining services at Vassar, we at The Miscellany News believe that the proposed plans are not optimal for Vassar student needs. Before the plan is finalized, we would like to challenge the idea of a mandatory meal plan and question the concept of all access.
Though we appreciate that the college is taking steps to switch to a new food provider, we question and criticize many of the accompanying changes. While renovation plans for the ACDC are still very much in an undeveloped phase, it is important to think about what will be done with the space. Recently designed student spaces have been a success when students are able to give their input in a meaningful way.
The Old Bookstore and Bridge Cafe serve as examples of good renovations for the creation of student spaces and both of these areas have smaller, more compartmentalized floor plans. With the large, open space the ACDC offers, plans for its renovation must consider the types of spaces that students frequent. We believe that transitioning away from such a cavernous space would be a good way to get more student traffic.
A main concern about the meal plan shift is the switch from an “all you care to eat” to the “all access” plan. Dean Roellke’s email states that the current plan encourages food wasting. As he wrote in his all-campus email, “The dining fee will cover students’ full access whenever ACDC is open, and we do anticipate later hours for dining, making it easier for students with practices, games and other organizational activities to eat at more convenient times.”
Though this seems in theory to be a good idea, especially if the ACDC hours improve, it leaves many unanswered questions. How will an all access meal plan fit into alternative dining options on campus, primarily the ones that operate on dining bucks? Will students be able to flash their ID and mine the Retreat or Bridge Building for food? Will the meal plan include a Dining Buck allowance? As of now, the fate of other dining areas on campus in relation to the all access plan is profoundly unclear.
Lastly, we believe a mandatory meal plan is extremely constricting and unfair, especially for students with dietary restrictions or students living outside of the dorms. The current Vassar meal plan is set up so seniors living in the Town Houses, Terrace Apartments and the South Commons can learn how to buy and cook their own food without being on a meal plan.
By being forced to remain on the meal plan while not living in the dorms, seniors will lose the incentive to be self-sufficient. If they do opt to cook for themselves, they will be wasting money on an unused meal plan. Students without the financial means to spend extra on groceries would be completely excluded. Additionally, we still have questions about what will happen with students living in Ferry or Meat House, communities centered around preparing their own food. A mandatory meal plan simultaneously discourages culinary independence of older students and incurs extra expenses.
A New York Times article from this past December chronicles similar changes to other campus dining plans throughout the country. The article notes that many of these comprehensive deals are lucrative for the schools themselves as dining contractors have offered commissions and signing bonuses to help pay for campus improvements and academic programs. For example, under its contract which runs through 2027, the University of Tennessee will receive 14 percent of all food revenues and $15.2 million in renovations to dining facilities. These comprehensive plans, backed by additional incentives to schools themselves, have thus led to an uptick in meal plan costs as well. This type of deal bodes well for Vassar, but looks to be an extreme detriment to the student body, whose needs will continue to not be met. (The New York Times, “Meal Plan Costs Tick Upward as Students Pay for More Than Food”, 12.5.15)
In order for Vassar’s new plan to effectively meet the needs of the entire student body, we at The Miscellany News believe that certain modifications should be made to the existing plan.
One possible solution particularly relevant to upperclassmen who live either in on-campus apartment style housing or off-campus could be an on-campus meal plan-backed grocery store. Students could use dining bucks or other comparable currency provided via the “all access” plan to purchase groceries. This would allow students with kitchen units to retain some degree of control over what they cook and eat while still honoring the meal plan. Wesleyan University, a school who already has a version of this mandatory meal plan with Bon Appetit, has implemented this successfully.
If students in apartment style living choose to purchase their own groceries they are not only losing money by not eat, they are also spending additional funds on their own food. In this vein, the College could also choose to remove the mandatory fee for seniors or any students not living in the dorms. Vassar advertises their on-campus apartment style living as “a house on training wheels” and implicitly encourages learning to cook, clean and maintain a household. Forcing all students to walk to the central hubs of campus for each and every meal directly opposes this sentiment.
It would also be prudent to allow for flexibility within the plan that permits students to disperse their money into whatever avenues of the meal plan they want. Students could also have a minimum buy-in for the plan that would decrease with each ascending class year.
With the implementations of this new plan, the Administration must acknowledge that the existing on-campus dining spaces are limited in both hours and accessibility. As it stands today, there are no 24/7 dining options on campus. In addition, if the College intends to make the ACDC more of a central hub and social space, they should consider how to effectively utilize the free space in UpC. Renovated in 2003 and established as a late night dining option, the top floor of ACDC is now mostly empty and underused. We advocate that the College repurpose this space as another dining space for students or utilize it as a grocery store if that plan were to come into fruition.
The announcement of a change in dining services and a subsequent shift to an “all access” dining plan in 2017 has ramifications for the entire student body. While we at The Miscellany News acknowledge the switch to a more highly-regarded dining service in Bon Appétit, we urge the administration to examine the consequences of this new plan on the student body as a whole. While Dean Roellke’s email outlines vague plans to increase accessibility and variety, it fails to account for the various cultural, monetary and dietary restrictions it may place on students, specifically students who are low-income or require halal or kosher food options. If the plan is to successfully meet students’ needs, the College must provide clear, flexible solutions in terms of dining spaces, monetary logistics and viable meal plan alternatives.
—The staff editorial represents at least 2/3 opinions of the editorial board of the Miscellany News.