David Ceasar: Devolution of dining

In recent weeks, Student Association leaders have lobbied the administration to diminish the unpopular mandatory minimum spending at J Street. Both sides have been in serious discussions about how to balance Sodexho’s financial needs to operate at GW and the appeasement of student concerns. The crux of the supply-and-demand problem lies in the quality of the dining options.

Simply put, the food at J Street today is rather abysmal. Students choose to eat elsewhere because there is better food at better prices at GWorld partners outside the Marvin Center. But it hasn’t always been this way.

This is my fifth year at the University, and I’ve witnessed firsthand J Street offerings get progressively worse – in both quality and diversity of choices. Regrettably, it’s been a devolution, not evolution of changes.

Back in the prehistoric days of 2003, GW’s dining landscape was diametrically opposed to its contemporary form. Those were the days long before a hole in the floor allowed passage of the buff-and-blue glowing Washington Monument, flanked by plasma-screen televisions (at a reported cost of a $4.5 million). This was also long before venues closed while there was still light outside and were closed on the weekends.

These were the days when you could get a meal for $5, with the help of Taco Bell and Subway and their reasonably priced menu. Some eateries were open until 2 a.m. Soda fountains with free refills were everywhere you turned. Craving brunch on a Sunday or Outback steak prepared by Outback chefs for dinner? “Home Zones” had both a weekend omelet station and a visiting chef series that drew lines snaking around the entire food court.

Nearly every year since, there has been a retooling of the food, and that can be a fair, necessary process – but in moderation. Interests change and some eateries are more profitable than others. For example, Pan Geo’s Wraps and a salad eatery were consolidated into one venue, and Crepeaway was brought to the Marvin Center in 2004. Dining officials evaluate revenue reports and make good-faith efforts at gauging student opinion through surveys. In the end, though, decisions led to inferior food and service.

I looked through The Hatchet’s coverage of campus dining since the late 1990s and found the same headlines popping up time and again. A cyclical pair of stories comes up: administrators change J Street again, and J Street changes – later to be found unpopular – are delayed. Why the need for full-scale reconfigurations nearly every year and the ratcheting down of hours of operation?

Certainly, basic finances have played into the decisions between the University and its food-service providers. And the advent and expansion of off-campus Colonial Cash partners took much business out of J Street.

Yet, if the food-service providers are spending millions of dollars to enhance campus dining – thereby trying to increase their profit share – they need to be improving our options, not worsening them. Drastic overhauls, especially when they eliminate popular eateries, are not bringing back any of their student clientele.

This leads to reduced student purchases in J Street, which prompts mandatory spending, which in turn prompts more widespread dissatisfaction. Without quality options at affordable prices, this vicious cycle will only continue.

The writer, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in political management, is The Hatchet’s senior editor.

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