Content warning: This article mentions disordered eating.
Starting June 5, Valentine Dining Hall will no longer provide to-go containers to all students, the college announced in Monday’s edition of the Daily Mammoth. Approved students with certain accommodations will still be able to access to-go containers.
The decision to stop offering the disposable containers — which have remained available, one large and one small per meal, at Val’s check-in stand since Spring 2022 — was motivated by concerns about the financial cost of the containers and their contribution to food waste on campus, a group of administrators wrote in a statement to The Student.
The change has prompted concerns from some students, who worry that it will exacerbate congestion in Val and make the containers difficult to access even for those who need them.
The containers were introduced during the pandemic in an effort to reduce the density of students dining in Val. The college’s announcement acknowledged that the change is in line with recent rollbacks of other Covid protocols, like the end of the college’s vaccine mandate and PCR testing program, announced in the past month.
“The containers’ use helped to minimize close contact in Val during the peak COVID period,” the Daily Mammoth posting read, “but we still use approximately 1,000 containers a day, and an estimated 40% of the food in them is discarded.” (Executive Director of Dining Joe Flueckiger said that the latter figure was a “rough estimate … based on a series of recent waste audits performed on the trash from the first-year residence halls by the office of sustainability.”)
“This decision was not an easy one,” Mike Thomas, chief financial and administrative officer, told The Student. “There was consideration that discontinuing the broad distribution of disposable containers may not be a popular one, but the environmental and financial impact of the program led us to the decision.”
Thomas said that the overall cost of providing the containers themselves amounts to around $150,000 per year, while the additional cost from added food waste is between $300,000 and $400,000.
President Michael Elliott confirmed, at a faculty meeting on Tuesday, that the decision is part of a college-wide effort to reduce spending for the upcoming fiscal year.
Thomas added that the decision was made after discussion and deliberation between a number of different groups, such as senior administration staff, the college’s budget team, Dining Services, the Committee on Priorities and Resources, and the Meal Plan Exemption Committee, which includes representatives from student accessibility services and student health services.
According to Flueckiger, eligible students will continue to be able to receive a “meal plan exemption” to access the containers. The exemptions are currently provided to students for medical, cultural, nutritional, or religious reasons. Further information specific to the to-go containers will be added to the meal-plan-exemption page by the end of this semester, Flueckiger said.
He also said that, in the event that a student is sick, they will still be able to receive takeaway food from Grab-and-Go in Keefe Campus Center. And if they are unable to pick up their own food, a friend will be able to use to-go containers to get it from Val for them.
However, Flueckiger said that students will not be able to bring their personal to-go containers into Val. “Legally, we are obligated to provide plates and food containers that are washed and sanitized to a high standard,” he said. “We are responsible for the quality and safety of the product we serve and this prohibits the use of containers not in our control.”
One of the main concerns raised by students was that those who have a compelling reason to eat outside of Val would no longer be able to do so.
Sam Hodges ’23 said that they experience sensory issues, and have used to-go containers to manage the noise during Val’s peak hours. “I’m graduating,” they added, “but I know people in similar situations who aren’t.”
For his part, Sasha Heywood ’25 agreed that “the sensory experience [of Val] can be overwhelming,” especially as someone in recovery from an eating disorder. “I sometimes can’t make myself eat if other people are going to be watching me, so I truly do rely on being able to take food to-go,” he said.
Larissa Hopkins, director of accessibility services, said she is working to tailor the exemption program to meet students’ needs. In making the decision to stop widely providing containers, she said, “Senior staff inquired about the needs of students with disabilities, and those needs are being factored into the streamlined process for students to request to-go containers moving forward.”
Nevertheless, Hodges expressed some skepticism about the decision as “a step towards ‘accommodations focused’ accessibility.” They worried that “disability paperwork” will be required to receive an exemption, which they noted not everyone who relies on to-go containers has.
All the students who spoke to The Student agreed that the loss of to-go containers could worsen existing overcrowding issues in Val.
As Rowan Belt ’24 put it, “My main concern is that the demise of to-go boxes will increase an already considerable problem of congestion and capacity in Val.”
The students also emphasized, generally, the convenience afforded by to-go containers.
With the containers, “There’s the ability to take food and eat it while watching TV or something,” Hodges said. “Or I’ve gotten to-go when I’m not hungry but have horse-riding past dinner time, [and I’ll get] food [early] since I can’t later.”
For Heywood, part of the trouble was how the decision was made. He wished there had been more outreach to the general student body, like, for instance, “a survey to get feedback before the decision was made, which [the college has] done for other policy changes.”
Hodges said that they would have preferred for the college to address the sustainability issues of single-use containers without ending the program entirely. They pointed to peer institutions, like fellow Five College school Mount Holyoke, which allow their students to check out reusable containers.
“[I am] disappointed that we’re getting rid of a system where Mount Holyoke seems to have taken it and really leaned into it, especially since it’s so popular,” they said.
Thomas acknowledged that the decision-makers had anticipated some disappointment from students. “There are changes every year to programs and offices as priorities and available resources shift,” he said. “We work very hard to provide the best possible student experience and simultaneously manage those changes.”