It is already our last term of this academic year. Since Fall term, we enjoyed significant changes in our dining halls that gathered overall positive reactions from the student body. However, is this change enough? Can our meal plans improve further? Union Hospitality meal plan contract states, “In accordance with College policy all First Year residents are enrolled in the mandatory 15 meal plan for the Fall & Winter Terms and are required to dine exclusively in West College.” Freshmen, naturally (or not), are the scapegoats of the worst of our college room and board system.
For the dorm rooms, this treatment is rather understandable: we cannot be renovating the residence halls constantly with regards to environmental responsibilities and budget matters, so some population of the students must use it. Moreover, the freshmen halls, such as Davidson Hall, West College, and Richmond House, though not at their best shapes, are still very much functional and are among the bigger residence halls on campus – first years could build friendships and communities due to the proximity they enjoy in these buildings.
However, on the boarding side, the restrictions freshmen are subjected to border on absurdity. All freshmen are forced to take the Fifteen meal plan, which includes 15 meal swipes per week and $200 dollars in declining, for the first 2 terms of the academic year. In the spring term, freshmen “may” switch to the 12 plan and the 12 plan only, and that’s it. This compulsory 15 meal plan includes the most meal swipes and least declining amount among Union Hospitality’s meal options. With such an abundant amount of swipes, one might think that the freshmen can access all swipe-accepting services with great freedom.
However, in reality, the freshmen fifteen plan can only be used at West Dining Hall; except for Friday night, when West takes its break, then freshmen are allowed to (or had no option but to) have their dinners at Upper-Class Dining Hall. Furthermore, while Rathskellar welcomes upper-class students to use meal swipes at an unlimited amount, it only allows freshmen 1 (one) meal per day. All of these restrictions seem to aim to one purpose: Making first-year students spend their board money in West College Dining. Why is that the case? The reason behind has never been officially declared.
Instead, the college and Hospitality expects first-years to obediently accept the mysterious meal allocation. “Well, then you freshmen eat at West!” – one might say. Yet, there is a significant discrepancy between the apparent quality of West Dining and Upper-Class Dining, from the facility, the officers’ performance, to the food itself. Regardless of the debate over whether West meals are actually worse than Upper-Class Dining’s or not, what needs to be pointed out here is the violation of the freshmen’s freedom over what they put in their bodies.
Except for commuters – an option available to those who have official addresses within a certain distance from the campus, every freshman and every student who was ever a freshman in the past few years at Union is oddly restricted to West. If only there was an official and reasonable statement from the College on why there are such restrictions on the basic survival need of the first year, I would be more comfortable having my every meal at West. But there has been none, or at least not widely publicized (reaching every student who was forced to take the 15 meal plan.) We must demand an explanation on this matter, not because we hate West food and love Rathskellar, but because in a college where classes encourage critical thinking and agency in every facet of life, we do not take things for granted, especially when “the thing” involves thousands of dollars coming from our, or our parents’, pockets.
The scene of dining for the upper-class students may seem a lot more democratic. Each upper-class student (non-commuters) can choose among six meal plans. The meal plans cover a notable variety of the meal swipes and the amount of declining balance. In other words, the upperclassmen can choose how they use their board money among West, Upper Dining, Dutch Hollow, the Bookstore, Ozone cafe, and the Rathskellar – such variety! But this is only a freedom of choices when one ignores the fact that one body of administration, Union Hospitality, runs our every meal options. This is by definition a monopoly, and a monopoly often creates overpriced, low-quality products that diminished customers’ consumer surplus. “Customers”?
Rarely do students think of themselves as the customers of the college experience. After all, we tried our best in applications and interviews to get into Union to experience one of the epitomai of the American Liberal Arts experience. Nevertheless, in my opinion, with the amount of tuition and room and board fees we are contributing to the system of our college, we are very much qualified for the title of “customers” – those who have independence, freedom, and the rights to question our consumption choices.
Or taking another approach: since Union College is a non-profit organization, and therefore we are not customers but part of a cooperative community, still we reserve rights to question how the body we are a part of is functioning. One of those rights is the right to question Union Hospitality. Why does it have to be the only dining option on campus? Why can’t there be a variety of independent corporations involved in the dining scene, a free market that improves quality and lowers price?
If for some very solid and hard-to-imagine reason, the Union Hospitality has to be the only dining service on campus, then we, as customers/members of the college, must be aware of where the money we are paying/contributing goes to, this time, for board only. How is Union Hospitality handling our payments? Why are food at Rathskellar and Dutch and Ozone priced the way they are priced? In the “real” world of free market, customers need not dive into such inquiry thanks to the natural movement of the demand and supply: customers choose best-priced (not necessarily lowest-priced, but price that matched quality) products and producers have no option but to continually improve their quality and minimize their cost to compete with other producers.
However, with Union Hospitality, the service has no apparent incentive to improve their service, since the students, following the College policy, have no option but to dine in their branches. Therefore, while the case of “totalitarian” management is much more apparent with first years’ dining plans, there is a monopolistic, undemocratic regime hidden in Union’s overall dining scene for all students. This is not merely a matter of food – which is quintessential in our life, thus the quality of our college experience – but also a matter of the ubiquitous apathetic attitude we students share towards the management of the college (i.e. the use of our contribution money), and the exploitation of such campus climate. To change this, we must first question, and then demand answers.