Despite Mixed Val Experiences, Students Express Gratitude for Dining Accommodations During Covid

This story began, as so many things in this pandemic campus do, when a discussion in the on-campus student group chat spiraled into a spirited debate over dining options. Students sent a slew of complaints regarding flavor, lamenting the absence of things like plain pasta or waffle-makers, both of which Valentine Dining Hall (Val) had before its Covid safe take-out model and pointing out the challenges that allergies placed on meeting nutritional needs in the dining hall. “Some days it’s really hard to eat,” one student wrote. But, at the same time another student wrote, “I honestly think it’s fine? Like, am I the only one who thinks Val is fine? Good most of the time.”

Messages ranged from the absurd to the sincere (for example, a student commented that the extra money not being spent on improving dining quality meant that only “Amherst admin and stockholders” win, which, of course, is not how 501(c)(3) organizations work), and students went back and forth with complaints and compliments of Val’s food, with little consensus or outcome. Sofia Guerra ’22 chimed in with an offer to channel this feedback into something more productive; as a result, on May 5, the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) emailed the student body an anonymous survey to collect feedback about the “quality, dietary restrictions, or the meal plan.” At the time of publication, Guerra reported having received over 160 responses from students.

“It seems like there’s some polarization going on. Some people think it’s not all that bad people are overreacting and some people really think there are some serious problems,” Guerra said.

Many points of feedback reflected the points that arose in the group chat: challenges with religious and medical restrictions around food. Guerra also noted that people praised the salad bar and yogurt bar, reflecting an overall desire for expanded choice in building a meal. Yet, while the conversation in the group chat and the need for the survey implied a baseline dissatisfaction with dining services, the interviews and consensus I gathered in reporting reflected the opposite. Many students with allergies and religious dietary needs expressed gratitude for Val’s willingness to work with them and meet a range of needs. 

Ashira Mawji ’21 described the obstacles that her food allergies (which “span multiple food groups — gluten, pork, carrots, peanuts, bananas, milk”) place on her ability to navigate the dining hall. However, she said “I’ve never felt the need to order food or groceries to supplement Val. Sometimes I’m allergic to everything except what’s at the salad bar. There have been a couple weeks when I had to stick to salads for lunch and dinner every day and then I found myself wishing for more variety.”

Mawji was resoundingly positive, though. “Val has been doing an amazing job of labelling food allergies and providing allergen-friendly versions of entrees in Lewis-Sebring. Their gluten-free offerings are so expansive that I’ve gotten to try a lot of foods that I haven’t had in years! And they’re also all really good, especially the bagels, waffles, chicken tenders and chicken enchiladas,” she said. “Overall I’m so grateful for the care that Amherst has put into accommodating a variety of allergies. I’m not really sure what else they could do to supplement their current efforts, and I’m extremely pleased with the job they’ve done accommodating my allergies.”

Early this spring, students took to the Internet to point out the irony of how the limited availability of Kosher foods available for Passover contrasted with the abundant offerings for Easter lunch, as one anonymous Twitter account memed. Students lamented the lack of offerings over a Twitter thread: Ayodele Lewis ’21 (@lewis_ayodele) wrote, “The kosher for Passover meals have always been slim but now with covid restrictions it’s 10x worse. There’s a tiny section in Lewis Sebring where today the lunch offering was a small portion of egg salad and a small bowl of soup, I doubt it’s uphill from here,” to which Emma Ratshin ’21 (@possumgurl69) replied “i for real ate a cup of chicken soup and cucumbers for lunch. dinner was a little better because i supplemented with the actual val meal.”

The Hillel E-Board reflected on the cooperation Val met their requests with in meeting Passover needs and planning the seder. “Since the [Kosher for Passover] food was left for us in a fridge, we asked Val to provide us with a microwave, and they did so extremely promptly,” they wrote in a statement. “They also made sure we had Kosher for Passover cookies available when Insomnia was for late night. Once or twice, there were some not Kosher for Passover items set out [bagels, hamentaschen], but we don’t fault Val staff; there are a lot of rules to keep track of. We would like to thank the staff for being receptive to our feedback and addressing our needs once we shared them. The Passover food options were not great, and many students were frustrated by the limited [and repetitive] options, but I don’t think this was Val’s purview. Val did an amazing job setting up our seder and bringing food down to the Powerhouse for us, heated and portioned. We appreciate their hard work and their ability to thoughtfully address student feedback during Passover.”

Joe Flueckiger, the director of Dining Services, explained a similar responsiveness when it came to helping Muslim students plan out meals during Ramadan. Flueckiger said that this year Dining Services has done more than it ever has to accommodate Muslim students during the month of fasting, since it is an unusual year where the entirety of Ramadan overlaps with the school year and, of course, a year when students cannot leave campus for a meal when the dining hall closes. This year, members of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) have access to the Ford Hall Event Space and the Event Kitchen, where there is a food pantry stocked with yogurts and cereal and even Halal candies, as Ankit Sayed ’24 noted. Dining Services also caters MSA’s iftar, the evening meal, once a week. All of these advances, though, are the product of advocacy and coordination by student leaders on MSA. 

It speaks to a common theme that emerged across the interviews I conducted: that when presented with feedback, Dining Services is overwhelmingly eager to address it. “The reality is that we are partners in this and we want to be collaborators with students in a continuous improvement model,” Flueckiger wrote. 

Olivia Luntz ’21 manages Val’s social media and has taken on a de-facto role as an intermediary between the students and Dining Services. She finds that aspect of that job an essential part of making the dining hall more accessible: “Joe has said to me that for most of the allergen friendly options that they have at Val, they have because students with these dietary restrictions have reached out and said ‘Hey, I really like this brand of coconut yogurt or this brand of oat milk or this brand of gluten free bread, can you buy this?’… If it seems like something that we can reasonably produce, he’ll try his best to get it.” 

“I think that having an easy way for students to communicate with dining is great because I just think it’s going to get more of their needs met,” Luntz said. That’s why she feels that her role as a fellow student, who is approachable and able to field Instagram DMs and GroupMe messages asking whether something is Halal or gluten-free or why Val doesn’t have X,Y or Z options, is so important. 

It’s also why Guerra wanted to launch the AAS survey in the first place. “I think we’re going to be trying to maybe get more frequent student input into the menu. At least that’s something that has been floating through my mind and like suggesting to the new Dining Committee [on the AAS],” she said. But, she explained that for now, all of this feedback won’t go anywhere, since the school year is wrapping up, and with it, the AAS’s senators are turning over and re-shuffling who sits on which committees, including the Dining Committee, which works as the liaison in situations like this. 

“Really, I’m just hoping that bringing this to the Dining Committee will kind of jumpstart some more regular student feedback and kind of make a good dent in terms of reforming Val because it’s notoriously kind of polarizing … I just hope we can make it a little more inclusive for everybody, when I think they’ve been actually doing a great job and they are trying, which I really appreciate. I don’t think it’s even necessarily going to be like a hill to die on like, I think they just need a little more input. I think hopefully AAS can have a good role in that,” Guerra added. 

Flueckiger noted that some pathways do already exist to collect student feedback, including an option on the Mammoth Meals App, but “with the change to using other applications this dropped off significantly.” He noted Luntz’s role in relaying student feedback: “This semester we have been getting a lot of feedback filtered through the GroupMe chat, which has been very helpful. The most impactful engagement has occurred on our social media platforms, especially Instagram. Olivia Luntz has done a fantastic job of keeping students up to speed on what is happening for late night meals, as well as special events. This connection with the students has opened up more communication than ever before,” he said.

Of course, students do still hold complaints. As Flueckiger himself noted, it is impossible to please everyone in a group dining situation like this, and some of them are outside of Dining Services’ purview. Many students, for instance, lamented the lack of kitchen spaces available to cook their own meals. 

Sayed explained that even in the Ford Hall Kitchen space, which MSA has full access to, there are burners but the gas has been turned off. “A lot of us are from ethnic backgrounds and we have very strong feelings about food,” he said. “For a lot of us, Islam is a deep cultural practice, there are certain foods that you do for Ramadan … There are certain kinds of flat breads and potatoes and eggs that we eat [in my family] in the morning. I really really do miss that, it was my last food when I left Amherst, and will likely be one of the first things in the morning that will wake me up when I get home. I do wish we had kitchen space, but it is what it is.”

Though the college has offered a mini fridge and microwave to every student living on campus, this access to make food only goes so far. Guerra, herself vegan, echoed Sayed’s wish to be able to cook, as she explained the particular challenges Covid restrictions have put on limited dining. “Especially since we don’t have access to kitchens, people can’t just take ingredients from Val and just cook it the way they want. I think there’s just a need for a lot of flexibility, especially for people with dietary restrictions like a big point I’ve been seeing.”

Catie Burkhart ’21, whose autoimmune disease restricts gluten, dairy and eggs from her diet, explained how this year she has felt like there was no flexibility; most nights, her only options are the one starchy food, one vegetable and plain grilled chicken available in the allergy-friendly area. “Basically, you have no choice in what you eat if you have dietary restrictions … they just tell you what you’re going to eat,” she said. “I’m not trying to complain, but it’s not like every time I necessarily want exactly the one thing they told me that I could have.”

The challenge, she explained, is that even with Delivery Express’s options for take out on the weekends, there are only a limited number of restaurants that can address her allergies, and even then, ordering through the Delivery Express platform mediates the interaction with the restaurant, making it challenging to communicate allergies and restrictions. Burkhart said she’s had many instances where cheese or butter was accidentally part of her dinner because of a miscommunicated order to Delivery Express. 

“I think honestly just having two vegetables [as dinner options], just at least to have a choice would be really nice I think for most people with allergies,” Burkhart added, when asked what changes could make dining easier at Amherst.

“The good thing, though, is that at Amherst, I always feel safe,” she said. “I know that their allergy-friendly food will always be dairy-free and gluten-free and that they try really hard to make sure we can eat it and be okay.”