In an era of war, plague, and political crisis, only one topic is guaranteed to raise the ire of an Amherst student — the food at Valentine Dining Hall. It’s the single most important cultural touchstone of the Amherst experience. People complain about the food at every meal, sometimes in front of the people who make it. When I attended the senior speak-off several weeks ago, the dining hall was roasted more heavily than the average Val brussel sprout.
I admit that I’ve often participated in the mockery on days when my green beans were particularly rubbery or my conversational ability especially stale. Yet constantly complaining about Val food, as therapeutic as it may be, is simply unfair. While our dining hall may not compete with the legendary delicacies of UMass, we aren’t at the back of the pack either. I’ve eaten in dining halls at Yale, Smith, and Williams, and they were all more or less the same as Valentine. In fact, when the time comes for Yale students to put away their dirty dishes, they must resort to untidy and unstable stacks of plates and cups, in embarrassing contrast to our glorious, efficient, and hygienic conveyor belt.
The idea that Amherst, a college that spends over $100,000 per student per semester, is somehow forgetting to devote adequate resources to dining is patently absurd. While I can’t prove it, I’m pretty confident that Amherst’s dining food is as good or better than most other college cuisines across the country. And not to play the guilt card, but about 36 percent of college students in the U.S. are classified as food insecure, meaning that their meal plans are either too unaffordable or too limited to permit a balanced diet. Even the most die-hard Val critic must admit that if there’s one thing Val has, it’s quantity.
Amherst College dining, on the other hand, is reasonably priced. After financial aid, the average student pays about $1,800 per semester for 120 days of food (more if you stay on campus during breaks). That comes to about $15 per day, not particularly expensive compared to other colleges. For that price, we get unlimited food that is far more nutritious and sustainable than average. There is plenty of room to question whether the entire college package is worth the exorbitant price, but on the whole, dining is one of Amherst’s better deals. If only we had eaten Grammy Award-winning artist Common instead of hiring him.
I understand that some good-natured griping is a fun and therapeutic activity. I myself spend much (perhaps too much) of my time criticizing Amherst. But let’s set our sights farther than just our feeding troughs. There are so many important issues on campus that we can and should talk about instead of overcooked summer squash. Let’s talk about the unfair treatment that Val workers face, or the school’s ludicrously fast endowment growth, or even about the AAS corruption scandal last semester.
Not all criticism of the Val food is unjustified. If you have particularly severe dietary restrictions, you have good reason to be upset at Val’s limited options. But most complaints about Val aren’t good-faith constructive criticism. They’re reflexive, a kind of shibboleth to prove that you are a real Amherst student, not a Williams student who got lost on the way to a football game.
If we measured priorities by volume of discussion, we Amherst students would seem like one of the most short-sighted and entitled groups in the world. But we’re better than that. It’s time to prove that we can have our cake and fête it too, that we can scarf down salty asparagus with a smile, and that we can put aside our mindless material concerns in exchange for joyful mastication during our matriculation.
Is there something that drives you absolutely crazy? Send us your own “Rants and Raves” pitch at [email protected].