Dining tackles food insecurity with meal plan changes

After student activists brought forth concerns over food insecurity on campus, the College recently decided to make significant changes to dining services and the meal plan structure. Under the new plan, which will take effect next fall, the College will eliminate the 10-meal plan for all students and the 5-meal plan for seniors living on campus, reduce the cost of the 14-meal plan, allow up to two swipes at any meal on campus and open Lee’s Snack Bar from 2-5 p.m. on weekdays, offering the full menu at the lunch equivalency price.

According to Steve Klass, vice president for campus life, the critical goal of ensuring that no student goes hungry prompted the administration’s decision to make these changes. “It’s important to appreciate the centrality of this principle to our decision-making, because we recognized immediately that this meant constraining some set of choices available to students on dining plans,” Klass said. “Based on this fundamental principle, we decided that, from a nutritional wellness perspective, two meals per day for seven days per week should be the minimal baseline of any dining plan offered by the College.”

The changes come in response to the work of a number of student activists who first revealed the wide scope and institutionalized nature of this issue. In the fall of 2015, Sophia Schmidt ’17, began researching food insecurity on campus through her project as an eco-advisor for the Zilkha Center. After hearing rumors of students purposefully choosing lower meal plans and getting inadequate nutrition in order to save money, she created a survey with the goal of reaching as much of the student body as possible. Since the Office of Institutional Research was unable to accommodate her or give her access to an all student list-serve, she instead spread the survey through as many student groups and individual list-serves as she could and got responses from half of the student body.

According to the survey, one in five students said they were not always able to get enough to eat, and roughly one in three students who skip meals listed lack of money as an important reason. “The bottom line is there is a financial issue that’s causing food insecurity on campus,” Schmidt said. “Students are basically dropping down and not supplementing.”

That year, Schmidt, along with Allegra Simon ’18, began brainstorming solutions, including a potential swipe-share program between students. Robert Volpi, director of dining services, however, did not view any of these initial solutions as feasible given the fixed budget constraints uner which dining services operates. Schmidt then published her survey findings and possible solutions in an op-ed for the Record last year (“Our hungry: recognizing the needs of food-insecure students on campus,” May 4, 2016).

In the fall of 2016, Valeria Sosa Garnica ’19 and Ayami Hatanaka ’18 both gained interest in addressing food insecurity on campus. Hatanaka got in contact with Schmidt after seeing her survey results and reaching out to Klass about the issue, and Garnica, who also saw these results posted around campus, began working on the project as an eco-advisor this year. “The three of us really hunkered down and got together to form a loose team,” Hatanaka said.

After the students began  extensively researching food security on campus, it became apparent that it was institutional issue, rather than an individualized one. The students found that, among other things, minorities and students on financial aid were disproportionally affected. According to Garnica, the first barrier to making largescale changes to the meal plan structure was making the administration aware of the scope of this issue. “Administrators first saw this as an individualized issue, but we really resisted this,” she said. “You can’t fix this problem by giving more money to certain people.”

All three students agreed that the administration was not ignoring this issue, but rather did not understand how widespread the issue actually was at first. According to Schmidt, the administration lacked any significant data on food insecurity until she published her survey.

Though all three students met with administrators periodically throughout the year, they were not directly involved in actually developing the official new plan. Instead, they said, their role was limited to making the administrators aware of the widespread issue of food insecurity on campus. “Our primary role was in bringing the issue up, and trying to define the nature of the problem,” Schmidt said.

Though none of their specific solutions were implemented, they still believe that the fundamental principles behind their solutions were taken into account. “Some of those ideals that we were talking about were in the end result,” Schmidt said. “We did talk a lot about expanding hours of the dining halls, and I believe that eliminating the 10 is part of the ideals that we were setting out to achieve.”

Both the students and Klass agree that eliminating the 10-meal plan to ensure that students receive at least two meals a day and expanding dining hours thoroughly addresses many of these issues; however, the students were discouraged by the way the administration made these changes.

“We wanted it to be a process where we collaborated with administrators to change the structure of meal plans to be better for students,” Garnica said. “We did not have any decision making power in any of the specifics of the plan.”

Schmidt explained that the administration, which had kept a constant line of contact with the students during the first part of the process, suddenly stopped communicating with the students as the specifics of the plan were finalized.

“We had meetings [with the administration] throughout this whole year, but there was a gap when we didn’t hear from them for a while,” Schmidt said. “We met with them a few weeks ago, and we were presented with the new plan. The way it was presented in the last meeting was first, here is what we heard from you, and now, here is the solution.”

Hatanka expressed similar concerns with the College’s handling of this issue.

“This process to get to the end product was not an ideal one,” she said. “Yes, we got to a product that potentially may work for a large part of the student body. But the process to get there left out many student voices.”

Klass acknowledged this concern but argued that the pressing nature of this issue made it unfeasible to reach a large portion of the student body and still make sure a new plan could take effect next year. “I want to emphasize the urgency with which we received this message of perceived hunger on campus,” Klass said. “Since we don’t make mid-year changes of this nature to our dining program, prolonging the process any further would push our ability to respond to this urgent issue to another year.”

Still, the students agree that the issue of food insecurity is not new and that the administration could have made a better effort to engage more students in the decision-making progress, setting a strong precedent for future student activists.

“There does exist power dynamics between students and administrators that make it difficult for students to speak their minds,” Garnica said.

Ultimately, despite these concerns with the decision-making process, Schmidt, Garnica and Hatanaka are grateful that both Klass and Provost Duke Love took their concerns seriously and hope that this will be the beginning of a continued collaboration between students and administrators to address the issue of food insecurity.

“This was exciting to have administrators actually listen to us and actually understand what we’re saying,” Garnica said. “We’re hoping other students will approach and join our sort of collaborative process with the administration”