Revamping Dining

Following Joe Flueckiger’s departure, the Editorial Board reflects on what it values most about Val and what changes they hope to see as dining transitions to new leadership.

Former Director of Dining and Hospitality Services Joe Flueckiger’s arrival at the college in 2017 ushered in significant changes to Valentine Dining Hall’s layout and offerings. Certain additions — like to-go coffee cups and soft-serve ice cream machines — directly responded to student requests.

After Flueckiger’s departure, and with a new dining hall forthcoming, the Editorial Board wants to take the opportunity to both reflect on dining’s strengths and suggest some changes we would like to see in this new era.

There is much to love about Val, the iconic Val-sitting tradition deserves special attention. Val’s continuous dining and open hours allow students to use the dining hall as a study space (with free snacks), catch up with friends, and generally enjoy the space in the quiet hours between meals. Continuous dining makes the eating experience feel more casual, as opposed to a fixed meal schedule. Little can rival a lazy Sunday morning brunch and homework session with a hot cup of Mocha Joe’s.

Val as a community experience goes beyond students gathered around a table. The Editorial Board appreciates the hard-work of staff in the front and back at Val, who not only provide for nearly two thousand people, but cultivate a friendly atmosphere — even though their work often goes underappreciated.  Interacting with Val staff makes Amherst feel like a community of real, connected people, when it could easily become cold and transactional.

Val also fosters relationships with Pioneer Valley businesses, who bring us everyday staples like coffee, bagels, and maple syrup, in addition to relying on Book and Plow for some produce. Working with the Food Justice Alliance, leftover food from Val gets packaged and delivered back to the community in local food shelters. Val events, like the Vendor Fair and Fall Fest, allow students to learn more about their food system and its embeddedness within the larger Pioneer Valley community and regional agricultural practices.

Still, dining services is still frequently the subject of student complaints. Many of these complaints — such as the lack of variety in food options, tedious lines, and overcrowded dining rooms — can only be ameliorated after the construction of the new dining hall, which will be larger than Val. In the meantime, there are other important issues that the new dining director can and should make a priority.

Compared to the main entrees, the gluten free, allergen free, vegetarian, and halal food options are often lumped together and have very few options. This issue seems especially obvious after the reopening of Val after the Covid-19 closure, and has made dining a constant struggle for many students on campus. Anecdotes of prospective students turning toward rival schools like Williams and Bowdoin because of their supposed superior dining options are all too frequent. Without a full breakdown of the Val budget, the Editorial Board simply urges the new dining director to seriously consider whether more resources could be allocated to developing more expansive and tastier options for those with food restrictions.

The new dining director also needs to re-evaluate the one-size-fits-all structure of our current meal plan. While the majority of Amherst students in college residences must opt-in on an unlimited-swipes meal plan, many other colleges allow students to choose among a variety of meal plans, with different numbers of swipes and dining dollars included, depending on their idiosyncratic eating habits. Val trialed a system last semester wherein students could opt-out of breakfast in exchange for $100 in AC dollars (on-campus currency). The new dining director has the opportunity to go further in exploring more flexible meal plan structures that make room for student agency while preserving Val’s unifying role on campus.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, labor issues remain a central and recurring concern for Val workers and students alike. The misuse of casual employment continues to create an inequitable labor environment within dining services. Understaffing forces Val workers to work longer hours. The low compensation rate and aforementioned poor working conditions will continue to impact Val's ability to hire new staff. The treatment of Val workers is directly related to students’ dining experience. For example, Val had to cut some of its late night dining days because of understaffing. In order for dining services to maximize its community impact, the Editorial Board urges the new dining director to ensure the wellbeing of Val staff and a positive labor environment that allows all employees to thrive.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 11; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0).