Searching for a New Mode of Criticism for Dining Services

Contributing Writer Dylan Byrne ‘24 argues that criticisms of Val should look to foster more productive relationships with Dining Services that can lead to improvement.

Hang around Amherst College long enough, and you’re bound to hear complaints about Val. As far as campus life goes, it’s arguably the biggest target of student criticism. It makes sense why. People have to eat, and since Amherst is a residential campus, Val sees the most foot traffic of any building on campus. It seems natural, then, that students will develop stronger opinions about the places they frequent the most. But while this criticism is rooted in the very real concerns and disappointments of students, it oftentimes takes on an excessive and hostile tone that ignores the difficulty of preparing three meals a day for thousands of campus community members, and the fact that there is substantial work already being done by Dining Services to address these issues. This type of criticism, I believe, is not conducive to creating the kind of change that would actually solve the problems posed by students. In this article, I want to propose a new mode of criticism, one that still holds Dining Services accountable for improving the dining experience at Amherst but also works to foster productive relationships between staff and students by which these improvements may be made. In other words, I want to see a kind of partnership between the people who live here and the people who work here that makes Amherst feel a little bit more like a home.

I work as the Food Systems Fellow in the Office of Sustainability. Much of my job involves speaking regularly with various stakeholders in the campus food system, including Dining Services. What I’ve learned since assuming the role in September 2023 is that it takes a lot to affect the kinds of broad, sweeping changes that need to be made in our food system. A lot of time and commitment. A lot of sustained effort. And a lot of relationship-building with dining staff to create opportunities for these changes in the first place. Suffice to say, there are no easy solutions to ensuring thousands of people can be fed every single day. Solutions that are effective and lasting are delicate, built on a series of compromises and mutual understanding, and must be continuously monitored and reevaluated.

Knowing this, it’s why I’m so upset by the aforementioned sorts of criticism levied against Dining Services. For instance, I think of the email sent by Matthew Chun ’24 in February, which did not actually offer a productive path forward for how he wanted the issue of overcrowding at Val to be addressed. This email did more to stoke tensions between students and staff than to take the lead and work collaboratively with Dining Services to solve the issue. Couple this with the fact that Dining Services were already working on solutions to these issues when this email was sent, and one can begin to see why this type of criticism is ineffective.

Let me be clear. I am not opposed to criticizing Dining Services. I am troubled that, in a Fall 2022 AAS Survey, 14 percent of students responded that Val does not accommodate their dietary restrictions. I am concerned that Amherst falls behind numerous comparable institutions (Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Williams, and even UMass, an institution more than ten times the size of ours), in the percentage of food that is sustainably sourced based on data from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. I am upset about the lack of quality plant-based proteins and worry that this forces students to choose between their personal values or meeting their dietary needs. I am confused as to why the college does not already have a strategic plan when it comes to dining, particularly in the midst of a climate crisis for which our industrial food production and distribution system is in large part responsible. (Which, mind you, is an issue the Office of Sustainability has been working urgently to address.) The list continues.

What I am saying is that criticism must not always be entirely negative. As an example, in the wake of Joe Flueckiger’s departure, the editorial board of The Student wrote a piece that set forth actionable recommendations for Dining Services. It was honest about Val’s shortcomings yet framed these critiques in a positive light, as an opportunity for growth rather than a condemnation of character. If more students framed their criticism in this manner, I believe much more could be done to foster better student-staff relations and actually make the changes that are necessary to address this criticism.

I don’t want to decry bad forms of criticism without offering paths for change. In terms of formal pathways, the end-of-semester dining surveys are a crucial source of student input for Dining Services. In my meetings with the Food Systems Committee, a group of stakeholders from across campus that meet regularly to discuss improvements to the Amherst College food system, I’ve been surprised at just how many changes to Val were initially sparked by responses to these surveys, particularly changes relating to cross-contamination and allergen-free foods. Emailing dining staff, such as Director of Dining Services Bill Connor ([email protected]) and Executive Sous Chef Bill Fet ([email protected]), with questions, concerns, and other feedback is also an effective means of communication. We in the Office of Sustainability are also excited to receive student feedback and can weave this feedback into our conversations with Dining Services and administration (you may reach me at [email protected] and Green Dean Anna Hogarth at [email protected]).  Furthermore, Dining Services also has a responsibility to improve their communication with the student body. Oftentimes, poor criticism from students stems simply from a lack of understanding of why Dining Services makes this or that decision. Making this rationale more transparent would go far in educating students about the intricacies of collegiate dining and equipping students with more information with which, in turn, they may make more informed, accurate, and precise critiques of Val.