Over the past few weeks, I’ve been researching the meal plans offered at Amherst College. For me, it works — but for others, it doesn’t. Before I continue, I want to make this clear: I bring up these flaws because I love Amherst. I believe that critique strengthens institutions that pay attention and implement change. I want Amherst to flourish, but it can’t be done without addressing the problems that stunt its growth.
The meal plan is overcharged, inflexible and nearly impossible opt out of if you don’t have a disability or religious exemption. Some students who have opted out of the meal plan spend less than half its cost on groceries, saving upwards of $3,000 a year. Furthermore, it is less expensive for students to be off the meal plan and pay for three meals a day at Val than it is to stay on the meal plan.
I’ve heard theories about why the meal plan is so expensive and difficult to get off, but Kevin Weinman, the college’s CFO, gave me an answer. The high price is not to subsidize students on financial aid, nor is it allocated to other departments in the college. According to Weinman, the cost of the meal plan is used to ensure fresh ingredients and cover operating costs, which “nearly doubled from 2010 to 2016.” Student contributions to the meal plan cover roughly one-third of the cost to sustain Val, the rest of it being covered by our endowment and Annual Fund. However, it is impossible to ignore that students on the meal plan will probably pay more than the average student who is off the meal plan. It is unfair to force students into a $6,000 financial obligation if they are dissatisfied with the service provided.
The Valentine staff have my wholehearted appreciation. They work hard to address complaints and are receptive to student input. I had the pleasure of talking to Charlie Thompson, the head of Val. He gave me a clearer picture of what Val used to be and where it is presently.
According to Thompson, over the years, Val has transformed into a new dining hall in terms of quality, options, and operating hours. Val, which is a part of the college and not an independent contractor, is committed to providing students with a proper dining experience, and is generously supported by Amherst administration. Ingredients have gotten fresher, equipment updated and options expanded.
However, nearly all the students I talked to who were unhappy with the meal plan claim that if the quality and options at Val were sufficient, they wouldn’t have tried getting off the meal plan. Valentine is not improving quickly enough, they said. For some, the Americanized menu fosters homesickness or the food just isn’t appetizing. For others, the inescapable social-dining aspect of Val is anxiety-inducing. So what can be done?
I offer two solutions to treat the surface of the meal plan’s fallibilities. I’ll begin with the one which could be implemented as early as next semester. We need more flexible meal plans. Currently, the only alternate meal plan at Amherst costs the same as the standard meal plan but limits students to only lunch and dinner, with $100 in bonus bucks that can be spent at Frost Café or Schwemm’s [fact check me on this]. It is also only available to upperclassmen. In comparison, Hampshire College has three diverse plans, one of which can be customized four different ways. All their plans vary in price, the lowest being $200 a semester. Why not use Hampshire College’s dining plans as a model for our own meal plans?
Second, we need a second dining hall. The physical size of Val restricts its serving potential. New food stations cannot be introduced, simply because there is no space for them. A new dining hall could reduce waiting times and crowd sizes as well as offer an alternative seating arrangement for students who don’t want the social dining experience of Val. Val has improved greatly over the years, but there is a limit to the potential for improvement, which Val is approaching quickly, if it has not already met it. A new dining hall could solve the majority of Val’s shortcomings.
There are rumors that Merrill will be renovated to address this problem, which would be great, if renovation is possible. The only issue I see with that plan is the college’s track record of overestimating its ability of completing projects on time and on budget (such as the new science building, which was originally started before I was a freshman but put on hiatus until this year). However, if we choose to build an entirely new building, there’s no telling when it would be ready. The school would have to allocate funds, clear a space on campus (a task which could take upwards a year), and then hastily erect a new building (another year would be an optimistic guess). It’s clear that Amherst has already outlived Valentine, but how many years must we wait for a significant change? In the meantime, it’s unreasonable to force students to stay on an inflexible meal plan which they are opposed that does not cater to them in the meantime.
The process of getting off the meal plan can be arduous, to say the least. From the ten students I met with who tried to get off the meal plan, most received no guidance on how to go about this process, and only one student reported a quick and easy resolution to her request. But for the other nine, they were not clearly told what qualifies as a disability and routinely passed off to other staff, and their requests went unanswered for days, sometimes over a week, at a time.
Even if a student proves they cannot be accommodated by Val, there is no guarantee that they’ll get off the meal plan. Senior Felix Castro, frustrated from a lack of guidance and straightforward answers, said that he refused to eat for two weeks to expedite the process. Another student, a junior, reported that he had been approved to get off the meal plan due to a medical condition and was told he’d stay off the meal plan in the future, which turned out not to be the case when Amherst went back on its decision the following year. Yet another student, a junior, decided to move off campus and away from friends, an undesirable inconvenience, as a last resort to get off the meal plan after having been denied multiple times. It worked.
The real issue is not Valentine nor the meal plan, both valid criticisms of the college in their own right. Rather, it is the treatment of students who want to get off the meal plan. I was beside myself when a sophomore showed me emails from the administration ignoring his medical condition, because he did not know how to respond to vaguely-worded questions about his condition over email. He should have been asked to come in and discuss the issue face-to-face with the Accessibility Services Manager. Instead, he was strung along for over month from the five different staff members he reached out to.
I got a taste of this disorganization over the past three weeks as I tried setting up meetings with administration to hear their side of the issue. Of the eight college staff and administrative members of Dining Services and Student Affairs I reached out to, only Thompson and Weinman responded promptly. Another agreed to answer questions posed via email, but never got back to me after I sent my questions. Another administrator dismissed me after making me wait a week for a response, and two never bothered responding at all. It is the college’s job to respond to students promptly, honestly and earnestly. Currently, it seems we need to start hiring employees whose sole purpose is to answer the inquiries of students, because the unresponsiveness is bordering on ridiculous.
Whether this is a symptom of disorganization, carelessness or being understaffed, the administration needs to step up its game. This doesn’t mean appeasing the whim of every student, but rather to answer student queries promptly, provide clear instructions, offer straight answers and show a little sympathy. I know there must be plenty of instances where this does happen, but it’s disturbing to hear so many stories to the contrary.
We need a culture change. Students must be more involved with school policies, through transparency from administration and participation from students. If students are complacent in addressing issues they think don’t directly impact them, such as the meal plan, and if administration continues to run the school without acknowledging student needs, student life will deteriorate. So, let’s do the opposite of that. It sounds almost too easy, which leads me to believe that perhaps I’m too naïve or uninformed to understand the weight of the issue I’m addressing. However, if the Senior Fairy Godparent exists, my graduating wish would be that we at least give it a try.