For spring break, some students went home to families for two weeks, relaxed with some home cooking and returned refreshed and ready for the rest of the semester. For others, traveling during spring break was a luxury that they couldn’t afford. Luckily, Vassar allowed students to stay on campus during the break free-of-charge. However, the College imposed one condition: no meal plan.
When school is in session, students don’t have to worry about going hungry, because they have already paid in advance to have a meal plan where they can use unlimited swipes at the dining hall or catch meals at Express. But during break, the College shuts off the meal plan, causing food to become an additional out-of-pocket expense that many students staying behind cannot afford.
The emotional toll of going hungry during spring break damages low-income students’ self-esteem and sense of belonging at Vassar. While their peers are partying in Mexico and posting about it on Instagram, those left behind struggle to figure out where to find their next meal. In these instances, drastic differences in income become not only evident but also highlighted. According to Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack in his book titled “The Privileged Poor,” cutoffs from the meal plan during break are an example of structural exclusion, which illustrates class boundaries and a lack of consideration toward the needs of low-income students (The Atlantic, “Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong,” 03.18.2019). The realization that the College makes decisions that only consider more privileged students contributes to marginalized students feeling that they don’t belong.
Two weeks is a long length of time to leave students to fend for themselves, and it opens up the door for low-income students staying on campus to become food-insecure. Additionally, most students don’t readily have cooking utensils on hand with which to prepare meals because of the mandatory meal plan. Even the most basic dish requires a cutting board, a knife, a pot and a plate to hold the food. The dorm kitchens don’t offer much help, either. Most are in various states of disarray due to broken appliances, and they usually don’t come equipped with communal cookware. The best a dorm kitchen can offer is a microwave. At best, a microwave-only diet would consist of ready-made macaroni and cheese, ramen, microwavable soup and perhaps one of those frozen vegetable bags. This kind of diet is anything but nutritious, and two weeks of it will not leave students energized and ready to dive right back into the second half of the semester.
Lack of kitchen supplies is not the only obstacle that makes eating during spring break difficult. The cost of food during the break can pose a challenge as well. Ordering meals from local restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner can become expensive really quickly, but buying fresh produce can prove equally expensive.
Another hidden consequence of the mandated meal plan is that it makes Vassar students ineligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). I know this, because when I tried to apply last semester, a social worker told me that they cannot give benefits to students on meal plans. Therefore, even during the two weeks that Vassar interrupts the meal plan, students can’t receive government assistance with food.
While the College tried their best this spring break with a pop-up food pantry and a few communal meals to ease the burden, these measures came too late and only slightly eased the burden for students staying on campus. In the future, the College needs to consider implementing a modified meal plan for those staying on-campus for Spring Break so that students who can’t afford the additional out-of-pocket expense don’t go hungry.
Although it’s definitely unreasonable—in terms of labor and cost—to open the dining hall for regular business during the break for so few students, Express remained open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day during the break. It would have been a sensible option to allow students one or two meal swipes per day at Express; it’s an alternative that the college needs to consider in the future.
Dean of the College Carlos Alamo weighed in on the issue, stating, “At the moment there are no plans to make a change to the meal plan during spring break. Vassar is not alone in this approach. Most colleges offer very limited or no meal plan offerings when they are not in session. That said, it is important to me that we ensure that our students have access to food. Rather than change the meal plan offering, my goal is to provide more continuity to the structure through the support services that we offer students during the break by providing similar support services during spring break as we offer during winter break.”
Alamo also specified what avenues he was exploring to ease the burden for students in the future. In an email, he said, “We are also going to work more closely with each House Fellow and the Student, Growth, and Engagement office to offer a few catered dinners in the houses and some of our affinity centers. Lastly, we can also provide a limited food pantry for a couple of days during the break that can supplement our other offerings. Taken together, this approach provides students agency and gives them access to food that will minimize concerns around food insecurity.”
Mandating a meal plan and then shutting it off for two weeks during spring break indirectly forces students to go hungry or resort to unhealthy, unsustainable diets. It is unacceptable for the College to punish low-income students who cannot afford to return home with this additional expense. Vassar needs to reevaluate its offerings and come back with a better solution next year, preferably proactively rather than last-minute.