As a senior, at last, I’m living in apartment-style campus housing. My Terrace Apartment (TA) is equipped with a full kitchen: a refrigerator, a sink, a four-plate stove top, an oven and even an island, with enough counter space for all kinds of culinary creations. After living on campus before, during and after the pandemic, I can say for certain that Vassar College Dining does not fit all of my needs. I won’t get into the details of my personal experiences with Vassar College food, but suffice to say, I was excited to finally have a kitchen where my roommates and I could enjoy cooking and eating together. After all, as the College website itself declares, “[The apartments] are shared by groups of four or five students who do their own cooking.” However, this description leaves out a crucial detail: With few exceptions, all students—including those living in these apartments—are required to be on the meal plan; oh, and they receive absolutely no—$0—grocery stipends for their full kitchens. That’s right, if students want to do their “own cooking” as the website says, they must dip into their own pockets for groceries.
Vassar places a premium price on these apartments—they cost $500 more than the normal room and board plan, according to Student Financial Services. Presumably, this is to offset the costs of the amenities provided, like a full kitchen (by the way, these kitchens don’t come with utensils, knives, cutting boards, bowls or plates). When full-time students are required to be on the meal plan, only those who can afford to spend more than the cost of the meal plan are able to buy groceries for their kitchens. Thus, the meal plan disincentivizes students who live in apartments from actually using the provided kitchens; at the end of the day, students are losing money by not eating at campus dining locations. To make using the apartment kitchens more equitable, students living in campus apartments should receive a grocery stipend as part of their meal plan.
Currently, students have unlimited swipe access to the Deece and a maximum of three swipes a day to use at The Retreat, Express or the Bridge Cafe. Instead, students living in apartments should be able to opt in to a grocery stipend and meal plan option—in exchange for some swipes, students could receive a monthly grocery stipend and be able to afford to cook in their college homes. Because the meal plan is “unlimited,” however, this complicates the process of allocating funds from the meal plan to a student grocery stipend. I’m not here to run the numbers on how this can be distributed effectively, but I’m confident that campus management, who make six figures according to Univstats, can figure something out.
Vassar claims that it provides students with ingredients to cook through the “Meals to Go” program, but these are only offered on weekends, and you must plan ahead by submitting your order, food restrictions and number of portions. These “meals to go” are meal kits with measured out ingredients and pre-planned recipes. Students have to place their orders by Thursday morning and have to choose between two limited meal options (meat or vegan), and they are not able to choose the ingredients for their kit. Additionally, the program uses large amounts of plastic, as each ingredient is portioned out individually: single-use plastic bags for meat and vegetables, and little plastic containers for oil and spices. Wouldn’t it reduce cost and waste to redirect these funds to a grocery stipend program? Students could choose the ingredients they want for the food they want so that they can cook in their kitchens, any day of the week.
Don’t get me wrong—I think a full meal plan for students in dorms is equitable. But students in apartments deserve an additional grocery stipend for their kitchens and the premium that comes with them. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to have extra funds so we can do our own cooking, as the college advertises? Having a stipend for groceries at Vassar is not unheard of—in the past, the Ferry House Co-op has received a budget from the Vassar Student Association (VSA) for group meals (as well as for cleaning supplies and hosting campus events), and this does not detract funds from residents’ meal plans. Currently, many students living in these apartments cannot afford to cook for themselves all the time, even a few times a week. To make up for this, there must be reasonable and comprehensive change.
This is not a groundbreaking idea—other liberal arts schools do it differently. At Wesleyan, for example, upperclassmen have the option to be on a partial point-based plan, according to the school’s website; they can then use the points at an on-campus grocery store. Although a Wesleyan senior told me that the on-campus store is overpriced, when compared with the sticker-price of the Vassar meal plan ($2,335 per semester), Wesleyan upperclassmen save $275 in funds that could be used for groceries (the upperclassmen plan is $2,060).
While students receive $105 in Arlington Bucks each semester, the only grocery vendor that accepts this form of payment is MyMarket, which is small and expensive with limited offerings. Even if a student had access to a car (one-quarter to one-third of students have cars on campus, according to the Office of Residential Life), they would not be able to use Arlington Bucks at any full-fledged grocery store. MyMarket is by far the closest to campus, whereas the nearest full-offering grocery store—Associated Supermarket—is a 26-minute walk from Main, and Stop & Shop, the nearest supermarket, is a 30-minute walk from Main on the side of a state highway.
All in all, as an upperclassman, I want to enjoy my newfound adulthood by cooking with my housemates. Recently, we made elaborate tofu rice bowls, with a kimchi garnish, sautéed broccoli and peanut sauce. We set the table and ate together in the place that feels like our first adult living situation. At the end of the day, cooking is a love language for many; I want to be able to do it more often, with the people I cherish on this campus, whom I have finite time with. But the lack of a grocery stipend infringes on the use of our kitchens! Please, just be reasonable.