Report reveals loose relationship between dining and clusters

Last Wednesday, the Neighborhood Review Committee released commentary on the role of decentralized dining on campus as part of its report on the current residential system. As an interim report, the Committee’s assessment did not specify any wishes or recommendations to change the campus dining system but merely called attention to the way student dining functions in conjunction with the existing residential structure.

The report acknowledged the variety of factors that could play into where students eat their meals, including location, quality of food and service and extracurricular activities. The Committee also recognized the difficulty of incorporating first-years into the discussion, since they all live in either Mission or Frosh Quad regardless of their assigned neighborhood.

The Committee relied on the 2005 report from the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) to gain a sense of the original thoughts about how neighborhoods and dining halls would complement each other. According to the new report, “An evident feature of the 2005 CUL report was the hope that the decentralized dining halls could help support a sense of community within the Neighborhoods.”

However, the Committee also recognized that “while the [CUL] saw that having a dining hall geographically associated with a Neighborhood was important, that association was not highlighted as a central feature of the system.”

The report also points out that the CUL outlined its hopes for community dining before Paresky was completed in 2007. Appendix C of the Committee’s report provided numbers about how many students from every neighborhood ate at each dining hall; the breakdown derived its data from the ID swipe card system.

Although it lacks a breakfast option, Whitmans’ swiped in 4,678 students during the second week of April of this year, outstripping Greylock, the next most popular with 3,897 total diners. An additional 3,499 students swiped in at snack bar that week, putting Paresky well above any other venue in terms of general student yield. Paresky drew diners from across all neighborhoods, with 1074, 743, 1196 and 865 students from the neighborhoods of Currier, Dodd, Spencer and Wood, respectively.

According to Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services and Committee member, the Committee does not view these numbers with a particularly critical eye. “The newness of Paresky along with the multiple dining options is certainly popular, but that’s not a problem, just an observation supported by the data,” Volpi said.

Dean Merrill agreed with Volpi. “The numbers helped confirm what we thought was going on,” she said. “To me, they’re interesting and important information to throw into the mix.”

As Appendix D of its new report, the Committee also released a map of on-campus housing as related to the major dining halls. The map indicates the 500 foot radius of each of the four major dining centers on campus: Dodd, Driscoll, Greylock, Mission and Paresky. Currier was the only neighborhood whose entire residential offerings fell within the radius of one dining hall – Driscoll.

Appendix C also revealed a noteworthy gap between Currier and non-Currier patrons of Driscoll. Driscoll drew 1970 Currier student swipes for the week, as compared to 367 Dodd students swipes, 705 Spencer student swipes and 473 Wood students swipes.

Currier president Sa-Kiera Hudson ’11 offered thoughts about the decentralized dining that reflected this geographical data, calling the Currier-based traffic at Driscoll “a location-driven phenomenon.”

Hudson described a basic philosophy for why Currier students feel affiliated with Driscoll: “I think Driscoll nourishes Currier students, and that’s why having Driscoll is so important,” Hudson said. “Home is where the stomach is – not the heart – and because Currier students know that Driscoll is always an option for them, that reinforces the idea that Currier neighborhood is home.”

Dodd came in as the neighborhood next closest fitting to a neighborhood dining hall model, although the exceptions of Tyler House and Tyler Annex from that radius were notable ones. Of the total number of diners at Dodd in the sampled week, 272 swipes belonged to Dodd neighborhood, while 149, 150 and 91 belonged to Currier, Spencer and Wood, respectively. Dodd only remains open for five dinners a week and Sunday brunch, however, preventing it from becoming as much of a neighborhood staple as Driscoll is for Currier.

However, Zach Padovani ’11, Dodd representative on College Council (CC), noted that Dodd still manages to foster a sense of community for the neighborhood. “I think that Dodd neighborhood has an incredibly close connection to its dining hall, closer than that of any of the other neighborhoods to their dining halls,” Padovani said.

Padovani stated that Dodd might feel more like a neighborhood hub partly because of the monthly neighborhood dinners the Dodd governance board sponsors in its dining hall. Padovani also pointed out that Dodd has fewer students than Currier does – another potential factor that would foster intimacy.

Volpi stated that the data was not particularly surprising to him in any way, including that of Driscoll’s large neighborhood draw. “I’m not surprised at all,” Volpi said, “especially when you consider the geographic location of that particular dining hall in relation to its neighborhood and the rest of campus, not to mention consistently positive student response to the quality of food and service there.”

Kim Stroup ’12 stated that the food itself is the primary factor in her decision about where to dine. She said that she checks menus extremely regularly, and cited Indian Night at Dodd as one of her favorites. Stroup, a member of Currier neighborhood, acknowledged that convenience has waylaid her attempts to follow her appetite. “There are definitely times where I’m really busy, and I go to Driscoll as a default,” Stroup said.

Greylock dining hall plays an interruptive role in the relationship between neighborhood and dining. The only dorms that fall within the 500-feet radius of Greylock are the buildings that make up the Greylock quad. Although Wood, Perry, Brooks and Spencer houses fall right outside the radius, the fact remains that Spencer and Wood neighborhoods split Greylock quad and therefore have to share Greylock as a cluster venue.

Joya Sonnenfeldt ’10, Spencer neighborhood president and Committee member, pointed out some of the awkwardness that arose from the sharing of Greylock, where Spencer and Wood once organized neighborhood dinners. “That was never particularly successful because it was not practical to turn away half of the Greylock residents because it was the other neighborhood’s night,” Sonnenfeldt said.

Sonnenfeldt added that Spencer now sponsors student-faculty events at the Log and the ’82 Grill instead. Overall, she described Greylock as the outlier in the neighborhood-dining relationship. “In the end, we think dining halls can and have played an important role in fostering neighborhood community, but that cannot be applied to Greylock since the space is shared by two neighborhoods,” Sonnenfeldt said.

The report also pointed out that the physical qualities of the dining facilities seem to be a non-issue for students. “Driscoll is arguably the most worn, most awkwardly designed venue in the system, yet it’s remarkably popular,” the report said.

Extracurriculars have also become a major dynamic in the daily student drift towards dining halls. According to Casey York ’10, co-director of Cap and Bells, students involved in theater tend to eat at Greylock because of its proximity to the ’62 Center. York said that Greylock does foster a sense of community – one not framed by the neighborhoods, but by common interest. “The tradition [of eating together] is nice because even if I don’t have rehearsal one night, I know that I’ll see my cast-mates or friends who are rehearsing for a different play or dance group eating in Greylock,” York said.

York made a point of saying she does not see the dining halls as extensions of the neighborhoods. “I am in Spencer neighborhood, so I guess it works out that I eat at Greylock, but I changed into Spencer neighborhood this year to be closer to the ’62 Center, not for any other reason,” she said.

Theater major Adam Stoner ’11 confirmed Greylock as a locale for theater students but also said that he uses Greylock as a meeting place with non-theater friends. He also gave the sense that he does not associate dining halls with respective neighborhoods. “Occasionally, I think of Dodd as only belonging to Dodd, but for no real reason,” he said.
Caleb Balderston ’10, who is also a captain of Williams Ultimate Frisbee Organization (WUFO), mentioned that although WUFO rarely plans team dinners, team members often eat at Mission, the closest dining hall to Poker Flats, where their practices take place. “Sometimes people go places based on menus, but Mission is definitely the default option after practice,” Balderston said.

Somewhat more formally, the cross-country team has team dinners after practice Monday through Thursday. Co-captain Connor Kamm ’10 said that although these dinners usually occur in Driscoll because it is the most convenient in relation to the track and field house, later practices on Mondays compel the team to eat in Greylock, the only dining hall open until 8 p.m.

On a more personal note, Kamm reaffirmed the notion of neighborhoods as separate from dining. “I don’t really see the dining halls as part of the neighborhood system at all,” he said. “I have always just eaten at whatever was closest when it came to lunches and breakfasts.”

Overall, on any given night, factors push students to eat at dining halls that may or may not correlate with their neighborhood. The Committee also recognized that dining halls like Dodd and Driscoll have an implicit advantage over Greylock in terms of fostering neighborhood ties.

“One of the possible outcomes this [discussion] generates is the notion that perhaps it’s time to decouple the conversation about dining from the conversation about housing,” Volpi said.

  • Alum ’04

    If Williams really wants to create community through dining, they should just do what Amherst and other schools do – have one dining hall.