To-Go Boxes Can’t Go

While sympathizing with their cost and waste concerns, The Editorial Board argues that the administration should have made a more nuanced decision than simply getting rid of to-go boxes, which enable students to meet their personal dining needs.

On May 1, 2023, Amherst College announced that they will no longer provide to-go boxes at Valentine Dining Hall, beginning June 5. The announcement framed the decision as part of the recent slough of pandemic accommodations and resources being rolled back, and as part of “honoring our commitment to sustainability,” due to the environmental and monetary costs.

Despite valid concerns about sustainability and budget deficits, the decision may threaten the physical and mental health of students with food- and social-related accessibility needs, while also putting the onus of seeking exemptions and alternatives on students who are already struggling. The elimination of to-go containers harms all students, including even those without accessibility concerns, by curbing their ability to make decisions about their own eating habits. The college has the responsibility to give more than an all-or-nothing solution to a nuanced issue, especially one bound up with the intimate daily rituals of eating.

On one hand, the decision makes economic and environmental sense. According to Mike Thomas, chief financial and administrative officer, the college currently spends around $150,000 per year on the compostable cardboard to-go containers, and more than  on food waste related to container use. Although the methods used to come to this conclusion were mostly opaque, it’s clear that we have come to take the option of to-go containers for granted without considering their waste. The administration clearly believes that there is only one solution to the to-go boxes’ unsustainability: getting rid of them. We argue that this issue doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.

While it’s not mentioned in the official decision, the move also aligns with the college’s vision of Valentine Dining Hall as a common meeting place for students on campus. Although to-go containers are incredibly convenient, they may make it easier for some students to isolate socially by eating in their rooms. A lack of to-go containers may be an impetus to be intentional about meal times and socializing, whether by choice or not.

Despite the benefits of getting rid of the receptacles, the decision is followed by a series of complications that don’t seem to have straightforward solutions. The college has confirmed that using personal tupperware to take food out of the dining hall will not be allowed due to liability issues, and that to-go boxes will be given out to people who apply for accommodations and to people with friends who are sick. We suspect that this aspect of the decision has hidden costs that the college may not be considering.

While students with accessibility needs will be able to apply to receive an exception, it is unknown what that process will look like. Even if it is relatively easy to apply for, the process of getting this exemption may be a daunting task, especially considering the nature of some accommodations. A person with an eating disorder or debilitating mental illness, for example, may not want to reveal this to college officials or may not have the capacity to realize that they might need this accommodation. The cost of this is too high to take lightly, and puts students with these sometimes silent needs at risk. Because of the nature of the system, a to-go container will not only symbolize that you have an exemption, but it will also be a tangible marker of all of the reasons for why someone might need access to to-go boxes.

Still, let us not forget that even students who don’t have accommodation needs might still need a day away from the dining hall for a multitude of reasons: It could be a nice day and they might want to spend time outside to enjoy the warm weather. Students can get sick. Their eating times may not align with Valentine Dining Hall’s hours. It can be overwhelming to see so many people at once, or they may want to avoid an ex, a friend they are in a fight with, or even an assaulter. Sometimes, work has piled up to such an extent that taking an hour to eat a proper meal may not be feasible. Negating any space for this flexibility denies students the freedom to mold their own schedules and eating habits.

Of course, the green food containers that were rolled out during the pandemic were debatably less successful than the cardboard ones. However, many other schools have dealt with the problem in efficient ways. Just down the valley, Mount Holyoke has been successful at partnering with USEFULL to implement reusable stainless steel containers. Unlike the green containers, if students don’t return these, they lose their to-go privileges.

It is unclear whether the college has even thought about these possibilities, given the lack of transparency about the decision. Seemingly out of nowhere, the college decided to ban the boxes without consulting students. Although the main reasoning was stated as sustainability, there had been no official effort on part of the administration to alert students that this was an existing issue or to curb the use of to-go containers, as demonstrated by the waste generated by grab and go.While the college is in the process of adapting to budget cuts across the board, cuts on dining that restrict students’ autonomy in relation to food and social life are unacceptable and potentially hazardous. It is imperative that the administration reevaluate their choice to make an informed decision that works best for all, as it is their responsibility to do the onus of this work — not by students who are already struggling to get their needs met.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 13; dissenting: 1; abstaining: 0).