Information about a contentious new meal plan has been floating around campus since last year. The January dining message sent by Dean Roellke confirmed that along with the new dining partner, Bon Appétit, Vassar would be receiving a new “all students on the all access” meal plan. Dean Roelke’s email reads: “We believe very strongly this plan will be of great benefit to all of our students– encouraging community-building over meals while allowing for increased flexibility around individual schedules. Part of this plan will also include the ability of students to use their i.d. cards at selected off campus locations. We are currently finalizing details and will have a full program outline for you and for parents by the start of the March break.” Although not fully briefed on the finalized version of the meal plan, many students are concerned with the implications of the change, specifically those it has for students who generally don’t have a meal plan: students living in the Town Houses, Terrace Apartments, South Commons and Ferry House.
Current and past residents of Ferry have begun to organize around this issue, creating a Facebook group for Ferry alumni and having meetings with Luis Inoa to talk about how Ferry will work once the new plan has been implemented. Discussions in the Facebook group have shed light on the reasons why people see Ferry’s dining traditions as a valuable asset for Vassar students.
I joined Ferry for a haus dinner on Feb. 9th to talk about the upcoming changes. As with many Ferry dinners, because of busy schedules and other conflicts, not every resident was in attendance. Those who were there and did speak to me all mentioned that their opinions were their own and they did not claim to speak for the group. They also made clear what it is about Ferry that makes it different from other living situations on campus and what is at stake with the new meal plan.
One of the most prominent similarities was the emphasis on Ferry as a place for community building and the concern that this would be damaged by the new plan. Jason Albertson, a Ferry resident from 1982-85, said of his and some of his housemates’ experiences: “We were all Ferrites; we all ran the house at various times, we all believe, strongly, in commensalism, the practice of sharing food and cooking for each other as a way to enhance the experience of community. I lived at Ferry for four years, and as a non-typical, older student, the community that we evolved around shared meals, shopping, cooking, meal planning and self determination through those behaviors was key.”
Annie Hope ‘18 shared many of Albertson’s impressions about what makes community building work in Ferry. Hope mentioned the act of sharing food as Albertson did but went on to talk about how community in Ferry is also formed through learning to live cooperatively in many aspects of life and space through activities like cleaning together, purposeful communication, and working to make the space more safer for all inhabitants.
Joanna Horton McPherson ‘04 also described the way food is central to the functioning of Ferry as a communal space and gives insight into the way this community has affected her life after Vassar: “I learned to cook and clean at Ferry. In the co-op, we make meals for 20 other people twice a week. Managing the system of rotating cleaning and cooking jobs enabled many of us to not only learn responsibility for our space, but to learn to care for ourselves and others. To this day, I remain interested in healthy eating and interested in local, organic farming because of the exposure Ferry friends gave me to vegan-friendly meals and food philosophy.”
McPherson continuted, “Meals reinforce the Ferry community. Last year as the dean at a private boarding high school in Sedona, AZ (Verde Valley School), I shared the tradition of banging forks on our plates to appreciate the cook. Ferry is known for being activist, entrepreneurial, healthy, funky and sustainable. Eating together is what brings it all together 5 days a week. The tradition is core to the community and is integral.”
Ferry has been known on campus for being a hub of environmentalism, sustainability, activism, vegetarianism, veganism and general funkiness, as McPherson put it. As Elise Ferguson ‘17 said, “Ferry is about all of this stuff but it’s also just a co-op.” Ferguson, as well as other Ferry residents, brought up that the house is made up of people who are there for different reasons. Some may be interested in environmentalism and some may be there for more control over their food, but the thing that is most essential to the functioning of Ferry is not those things– it is that Ferry functions as a co-op, that is, it functions communally.
Eating, cleaning, creating and passing down traditions, learning to care for each other and learning responsibility for the space all seem to be characteristics that those who’ve lived in Ferry view as essential. Additionally, many of the students I spoke to in Ferry shared the opinion that Ferry works as a communal space precisely because its residents are there intentionally and that an attempt to build community with unwilling participants, as they see the new meal plan as doing, will not be as effective or cooperative. Zoë Bracken ‘19 mentioned that Ferry has offered and has the potential to offer a place for people who have anxiety surrounding food or those who experience disordered eating to find support. A few Ferry residents mentioned that when they ate at the Deece they either ate too much or too little due to anxiety caused by the atmosphere of the space and/or by the restricted hours it is open. They shared the opinion that for the most part, a renovated Deece and new hours would not fully eliminate these problems.
Ferry residents have been meeting with Luis Inoa, the Director of Residential Life, as well as a few other administrators, to discuss the changing meal plan. During these meetings, one issue that the administrators brought up was food insecurity and the costs of eating at Vassar. If the meal plan is unlimited, students won’t run out of swipes and not have the resources to eat near the end of the semester. Additionally, if all students not on financial aid have to pay for the full price– which would then be the only option– there shouldn’t be a problem with funding the cost of food for those who are on financial aid. It was also implied during the meetings that food insecurity is a problem amongst students currently. In response to this, alum Albertson said, “I am happy to advocate that all campus dining privilege is something that should be extended but not mandated… I’d advocate that if food insecurity is to be cited as a reason to mandate a meal plan, it be actually examined with a survey of Ferry residents to verify if food insecurity is a part of a Ferry resident’s experience. I do wonder what would happen if, as a compromise, individuals were allowed to opt-in to meal plan.” This curiosity was shared amongst many of the current Ferry residents, proposing that students not living in the dorms should be able to opt into a full meal plan.
Alum Joanna Horton McPherson also mentioned cost as one of the reasons Ferry was significant to her: “The cost was literally 10% of the meal plan in the dining hall. I cannot overstate the significance of Ferry residents learning to order bulk produce, grocery shop, and cook on their own to be sustainable. For many on financial aid and saddled with debt, Ferry enabled a great quality of life at a fraction of the cost.” For reference, the approximate cost per Ferry member per semester for the shared Ferry food is $400, although that number fluctuates depending on what the house decides each semester.
Ferry residents hope to find a way out of the proposed changes. Instead, they would like to see a shift toward the creation of more cooperative living arrangements in order to create spaces that actually work for students. It is likely that Res Life will move forward with the proposed changes regardless. Ferry residents and Res Life are continuing to work on a compromise that will allow Ferry, and the ideology of cooperative living, to continue.
I’d like to thank and give credit to Tika Peterson ‘19, Saskia Globig ‘19, and the other Ferry residents present at the dinner whom I did not quote directly but shared opinions that influenced the writing of this article.