How we can improve dining

Nico Cavalluzzi

In an introductory club meeting this weekend, our board asked new members to greet each other with their favorite and least favorite parts about Williams so far. We were amused by many of their positive answers but surprised to hear many describe disappointment with dining on campus. Thinking back to my own time as a first-year, I thought our meal options were diverse and filling, especially considering our size and location. Perhaps it is yet another unforeseen result of the difficulties brought on by the pandemic.

The Dining team is not unaware of some of these shifting opinions. Both the dining hall staff and our community leaders have highlighted many of the difficulties facing the dining hall team as they manage long lines, limited staff, and an unusually high number of students on campus. I want to share a few recommendations to alleviate the situation until the dining infrastructure can handle these challenges better. These recommendations come after speaking with students at six NESCACs (Williams, Colby, Tufts, Middlebury, Hamilton, and Amherst) to get a sense of what other colleges have been offering to students before, during, and after remote learning, in addition to research on the other schools I did not have contacts at.

First, introduce additional vending machines or grab-and-go options. One of the biggest issues I have noticed on campus right now is the lack of quick dining options during certain hours of the day. Lines can be 15 minutes or more for open buffet hours and it can be near-impossible to successfully place a mobile order during peak times. Vending machines are available (a loving 2005 Willipedia article diligently catalogs 20 on campus) mostly in academic buildings and dormitories. Implementing additional machines or grab-and-go meals in more of these areas, as well as in common spaces, could help students looking for a quick food option in between classes. Some personal recommendations I have for vending-machine placement are Greylock Quad, the North Science Building, and surrounding Dodd Quad, as well as better signage in Sawyer (many students might not even be aware of the cafe on the bottom floor) and Paresky. Some vending machines on the market today even offer pre-packaged hot meals or microwaveable meals. These machines could accept swipes in addition to traditional cash or Eph Points. This would be especially helpful late at night or on weekends when dining options are the most limited.

Second, allow students to use either meal swipes or Eph Points at restaurants on Spring Street. At the sandwich restaurants, one meal swipe could buy one sandwich; at the sit-down restaurants, there could be a limited selection of meals students could choose from. There could be limits on the hours and number of times a week students could order, reducing the negative impact increased traffic may have on these locations. Additionally, students could use the GET Mobile app to order these meals, rather than causing large, potentially unsafe lines at each of these locations. At a minimum, students could show student IDs for discounts, like how it currently works at the Apothecary. Spring Street swipes are something I am aware that the dining committee has looked into in the past. I personally brought a recommendation for Spring Street swipes to the student dining committee two years ago, but I have not heard about any progress since. The reason I recall being given in freshman year for why this could not be implemented was that it would be too difficult to define the relationship between private enterprise and the school. And yet, I know that clubs can open tabs at Lickety and submit invoices to FAST for Domino’s, and professors can pay on behalf of students they are meeting for meals. A steering committee dedicated to meal-swipe implementation could successfully balance the desires and safety of the restaurants, students, dining staff, and the public.

Third, consider offering unlimited swipe meal plans. Multiple other NESCACs, as well as other leading peer institutions, already offer unlimited meal plans. One of the benefits I have heard from students at some of these schools is that it allows students to take less food during each trip to the dining hall as they no longer worry about wasting a swipe just to get a small salad. This means students may go at off-peak hours to grab small meals, rather than congesting the dining halls during the peak times. In-season student-athletes in particular have mentioned to me that, on an average day, they may want to go to the dining halls at least three to four times. Four swipes a day is impossible on the biggest Williams dining plan, and three swipes a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner means no Snack Bar for those on the 21-meal plan. Thinking back, I remember often seeing students precariously carrying boxes of takeout meals in the winter last year as they tried to make the most of each swipe they were given. Many of these meals, mine included, often ended up not being eaten. Even the knowledge of having unlimited swipes could cause students to shift their attitude about ordering. Unlimited swipes, in addition to potentially reducing food waste, might lower the stress of students who no longer need to plan out trips to the dining halls. This could also promote healthier eating habits, as students spread out their meals over the day into smaller portions, rather than trying to consume a day’s worth of calories in one sitting. There are justifiable reasons not to have an unlimited meal plan, such as the potential for swipe abuse, but, like all of these recommendations, starting a discussion on the merits of unlimited meal plans could enable the school to find a compromise that works best for our campus.

Finally, open up more opportunities for students to share dining input. I have heard that students who recommend meal options in the opinion boxes by Whitmans’ often see their recommendations a few days later, which is great! But there are a host of other ways that students could help dining steer our offerings. For example, I do not understand why at certain hours of the day Lee Snack Bar and Goodrich do not accept swipes. Maybe student input could help decide what hours are best for swipes, considering these are school and student-run operations, respectively. While the former Red Herring location on Spring Street is not owned by the College, I am surprised I have not seen any school or student input on ways to use that space to offer more dining options for students and locals. A future committee on Spring Street dining could help fill up these locations with food options that students, faculty, and the public would want.

These are all recommendations intended to help get the school through many of its current challenges until hiring and operational adjustments can bring back dining to pre-pandemic offerings. I look forward to seeing what the Dining team brings to campus going forward and hope that conversations about dining options continue long after the temporary challenges we face today.

Nico Cavalluzzi ’23 is an economics and mathematics major from Scarsdale, N.Y.