Staff Editorial: To ease J Street’s problems, take a minimalist approach

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo

The University’s contract with its food provider, Sodexo, is up in 2016 – and everyone and their brother seems to have an opinion about it.

Campus dining came up consistently during last month’s Student Association elections, with four of the six candidates for top posts proposing ways to change or overhaul the system. Last week, campus activists started a petition calling for “real food and real jobs,” and the University sent out a survey to gauge students’ on-campus dining experiences.

But all this talk is predicated on the idea that GW needs a large dining hall. Simply put, it doesn’t. It’s an unrealistic and unnecessary goal to strive for, and it’s time we give up on the idea.

It’s time for the University to take a minimalist approach to campus dining. All students really need from a dining hall in Foggy Bottom is the basics: a few food vendors that meet their needs. GW can convert the remaining square footage into student space with a relaxed, lounge-like atmosphere.

Many have it in their minds that J Street should be a full-fledged cafeteria. That’s clear from the ample discussion about dining during the SA elections – SA Executive Vice President-elect Casey Syron, for example, proposed a move away from J Street’s current pay-by-weight system to one based on swipes.

But realistically, there’s no need for an elaborate dining hall when we have so many nearby food options and there are kitchens in most residence halls. Leave that to the Mount Vernon Campus, where the residents get their food almost exclusively at Sodexo-operated Zime and Pelham Commons.

If we continue to work off the assumption that the Foggy Bottom Campus needs a behemoth dining hall, J Street will fall short in comparison to more popular options like Whole Foods, Sweetgreen, the GW Deli and Chipotle. If the University lowers the expectations it has for the dining hall – to a standard more attainable – and aims to make it more useful for students, it may have a decent shot at ridding J Street of its negative reputation.

It’s obvious that dining at GW – specifically its cornerstone, J Street – is in trouble. Any freshman who’s been on campus more than a few weeks has already internalized that J Street is a dirty word. It’s been plagued by complaints about poor quality, high prices and unattractive food options.

J Street will never be the one go-to food option for students. The other options on and near campus will always be better and cheaper. And when District House opens in the fall of 2016, with its own food options right next door to J Street, that will be even more the case.

By no means is it time to completely eliminate J Street: GW still has a duty to provide its community members – students, faculty and staff – with on-campus food options, particularly niche ones. The University provides our bedrooms, recreational areas and study spaces. It should supply a dining space as well to round out our facilities.

On Foggy Bottom, GW should also fill in the gaps for students with dietary restrictions – like vegan students, or those who keep Kosher or Halal – while offering one vendor with solid lunch options and one that serves coffee. And keep Auntie Anne’s, of course.

It’s also important for the University to show prospective students – and their parents – that GW-sanctioned food can be purchased with Dining Dollars right in the center of campus. A dining hall is crucial to the classic college experience, and just because GW is a city school doesn’t mean parents who perhaps went to a more traditional college won’t be looking for one when they visit Foggy Bottom with their kids.

The University can serve that need and then some. If J Street were scaled down to provide just a few options, not only might it be able to extend its hours – none of the vendor are currently open on weekends, for instance – but the remaining square footage could be converted into student space.

Student space is one of those perennial GW problems. But imagine if what are now the under-utilized portions of J Street became coveted spots to study or meet for lunch. It could be a comfortable space with a coffee-shop vibe and maybe even a few pool tables – why not bring back the casual, fun atmosphere that left the Marvin Center when its bowling alley, the Hippodrome, shuttered in 2011?

A large chunk of what’s currently J Street could be a campus hub that tour guides show off each day, where students are seen relaxing and studying between classes or before meetings. Students come in and out of the Marvin Center constantly as is – it holds student organization offices, the bookstore, the Colonial Health Center, and financial and registration services. It could become an even more robust student center if it also had a relaxed atmosphere.

Regardless of the specifics, it’s essential that the first floor of the Marvin Center remains one for student use. If the University ever scaled down J Street, the leftover space absolutely should belong to students, who have been fighting for student space for years. It shouldn’t be turned into offices, be used as meeting space or serve administrative interests.

Conversations about how to “fix” J Street won’t be productive. Instead, let’s be clear about what we want from our campus dining in general: nothing more than what we need.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, sports editor Nora Princiotti, design editor Sophie McTear, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and design assistant Samantha LaFrance.

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