Gaps in meal plan coverage cause distress

Vassar has an unlimited meal plan, but it doesn’t always feed students who stay over breaks. Some low-income students must stay on campus because they are unable to travel, and Vassar’s current plan does not do enough to ensure their well-being. Courtesy of Collin Knopp-Schwyn via Wikimedia Common

As winter break approaches, many students ask themselves: If I stay here over break, will I be able to eat? I shared the same question last spring break, when I discovered that every single dining option on campus required out-of-pocket payment on top of the cost of last year’s meal plan. This puzzled me, because if Vassar was allowing students to stay on campus at no extra cost, why wouldn’t they provide access to meals? For the four days I stayed on campus over break, I ate from the same portion of Baccio’s spaghetti and meatballs along with whatever snacks I had accrued from Express over the course of the year. I was lucky that I had sufficient Arlington Bucks and a friend not far from campus so I didn’t have to go hungry.

I also stayed on campus over the summer working two jobs. By the time I would come back from my off-campus job at 8 p.m., I was ravenous. But the dining hall had already been closed for half an hour. I was lucky that I had a roommate who knew my schedule. She would often bring me food from the Deece, whatever she could fit in a Tupperware container. When I finally received my bill for the summer, I was unsettled to find that the meals, half of which I never got to eat, had actually cost me significantly more than housing had.

As this year’s Advocacy Chair of Challah for Hunger—an organization which raises funds to combat food insecurity on college campuses and in our local community—I wanted answers to all of the questions I had accumulated from the spring and summer breaks of 2019. Why were there no meal options for students who needed to stay for spring break? Why did campus shut down randomly in the middle of the semester? What would students do if they didn’t have the resources that I had? To answer these questions and more, as Chair I sent out an anonymous survey to current students and recent alumnae/i inquiring about the sufficiency, affordability and accessibility of meals at Vassar over breaks. What I found was appalling.

For a college committed to serving low-income students, Vassar’s dining resources fell far short of its ideals. 74 percent of respondents said that the meal selections—which over the summer were part of a required meal plan—were both unaffordable and insufficient in meeting their needs. 58 percent responded that they did not have access to meals on campus for all or part of a break. 43 percent said the dining hours over breaks were incompatible with their work schedules. 42 percent said they had to stay on campus for financial reasons in the first place.

If 43 percent of people cannot use the meal plan that they paid for and 74 percent found the plan a financial burden, there needs to be a monumental change in how the College approaches meals over breaks.

While the statistics were illuminating, the respondents themselves provided even more insight and began to share their stories.

In the “additional comments” section of the survey, some informed me that, during past breaks, they had gone days without eating. Another said that many of their friends were frustrated, not knowing where their next meal was going to come from. Still others had allergies and other dietary needs that weren’t met. Several expressed their concerns about the lack of spaces to cook the extra food they had to buy over break—the dorm we stayed in over the summer break, Main House, had only one kitchen for 200 people, and many times, we were all trying to cook at once.

According to Senior Director of Dining Maureen King, the break meal plan has been a “slowly evolving process” taking place over a few years. Throughout my meeting with King and a subsequent meeting with both King and Associate Dean of the College for Campus Activities Teresa Quinn, I was surprised by how receptive they were to the data I presented and the solutions I suggested: A meal stipend for winter intersession and an extension of the dining hall hours to accommodate student workers. Then, she told me about a summer program I didn’t even know existed—I could have reserved a boxed meal through the dining website for the days when I came back to campus late. Clearly, that could have been better publicized.

Though boxed meals would have been extremely helpful for students working late, they would in no way have been a complete solution to the other issues the survey presented. There is a gap in communication between the administration and the students that is in extreme need of bridging. Without an adequate connection between the administration and affected students, it is much more likely that students will go hungry.

Because Campus Dining, Campus Activities and the Office of Residential Life all have a say in shaping the intersession meal plans, there is no single point of contact for students when problems arise. In a communication void, food insecurity will take a backseat.

“There is no one person to talk to [about this issue] because it’s a collaborative effort,” Director of Residential Education Michael Drucker told me in an interview. He went on to tell me about recent efforts to mitigate significant food problems that have come up over breaks, such as administrators having to make free lunches for student workers over winter intersession and having to raise funds from different administrative offices to run a spring break food pantry. Drucker noted that the “practices [regarding the lack of meal access over breaks] reflect a different time in Vassar’s history,” when the vast majority of students would leave for every break and campus would shut down completely.

All of this reminded me of the work of Harvard Professor of Education Anthony Abraham Jack, whose field of study focuses on student food insecurity over breaks when privileged students can afford to go on vacation. Jack says, “It is one thing to extend coveted invitations to [low-income and first-generation students]. It’s another [for a college]to really prepare for their arrival.” (New York Times, “It’s Hard to Be Hungry on Spring Break,” 03.17.2018). Vassar College has a responsibility to provide for its low-income students, and it cannot move forward with its repairs to the meal plan without significant input from those who will be most affected by the changes. Without input from these students, it’s impossible for the campus to be adequately prepared to stay open year-round.

Winter break is coming up, and although the meal plan will be updated from last year’s, as indicated by Assistant Director for Residential Education Atiya McGhee, we don’t know yet what it will contain. However, there will undoubtedly be room for improvement. Going forward, Challah for Hunger welcomes those who wish to share their stories, and will continue to work to establish a stronger connection between students and administrators. We want to make sure that no student will have to worry about where their next meal will come from while on this campus. But for now, there are two fixes the college should enact:

First, Vassar must find someone to oversee the implementation of a comprehensive meal plan for breaks. This administrator must be available to students during the break times so that concerns can be addressed immediately.

Second, we must bring this conversation to the forefront of student discourse. An existing VSA committee, the Student Dining Committee, is open to meeting to discuss initiatives that would increase meal access on campus during breaks, as expressed by Chair of Residential Affairs for the VSA Amy Miller. The committee is open, but has been often devoid of non-VSA student input due to a lack of publicity. Challah for Hunger is also planning to host open workshops next semester, during which we will brainstorm creative solutions for the unaffordability and inaccesibility of food on campus during breaks.

It is the responsibility of the college to ensure that every student here can thrive regardless of financial status and to guarantee that students will not have to starve in order to do so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *