Tuition might be students’ largest financial concern when looking at prospective colleges, but when they get to campus, students may struggle to afford a basic necessity – meals. Food insecurity, which is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for healthy living, has become a reality for approximately half of all college students in the United States. And unfortunately, this problem plagues our campus, too.
Two years ago, GW acknowledged this problem and became one of more than 300 universities to offer a food pantry – named The Store – in response to campus dining insecurity. Over the past year, about 26 schools have reached out to The Store to request tours and use it as a model to replicate. Although other schools may be looking at GW and The Store as a picturesque example of campus dining, this image is skewed. It has been more than a year since GW transitioned to an open dining plan, where students purchase meals at more than 90 partners and no longer have to spend dining dollars at on-campus dining locations, but since then, hundreds of students are still struggling to afford to eat enough each day.
The Store, which allows students to anonymously request food donations online, was a positive first step to help those who are hungry on campus but don’t have the funds to finance meals in Foggy Bottom. It is a particularly valuable resource for whenever students can’t make ends meet. But this shouldn’t be the only step the University takes to address food insecurity. More than 500 students have requested to use the food pantry, and there are likely plenty more who haven’t felt comfortable using it. The Hatchet’s editorial board discussed several ways in which GW could help alleviate food insecurity on campus and decided that the most viable option to help students better afford food on campus is for the University to enable students to receive a discount for paying with GWorld at all dining partners.
Currently, students pay full market price for meals they purchase at dining partners, like Sweetgreen and Roti, giving them no incentive to use their GWorld over their credit card or cash. But the University earns 8 to 10 percent off every swipe at dining partners, and some partners have even raised their prices as a result. Instead of having the University profit, students should instead be able to benefit by paying 10 percent less with their GWorld. This would mean that the University would have to accept the costs and no longer profit, which they should be willing to do without raising tuition or any other costs for students. On a campus where each meal can easily cost more than $10, a discount like this would go a long way in helping students spend less on food.
This would not be a new idea either. Former Student Association presidential candidate Lande Watson had proposed the University contribute 15 percent of a student’s allocated dining budget for the year, and at Boston University, students can get a nearly 20 percent discount on meals if they pay using their dining points instead of cash or credit at dining halls. Wishing the University will build a brand new dining hall is unrealistic given the lack of space on campus. But offering students an incentive to pay with GWorld would be an effective yet simple solution to making dining more affordable.
Although GWorld meal plans are designed to help students learn how to budget, it’s not working. Each student has different eating habits and having only one type of meal plan doesn’t work for everyone. Students can be found struggling to make ends meet on every corner of campus, often skipping meals and feeling the strain of an already-tight budget. Student researchers from the Food Institute evaluated GW’s dining plan, and even found that students couldn’t meet federal calorie recommendations living on the diet GW recommends to stay within budget.
Even when the cheaper J Street, GW’s former dining hall, was still an option, students argued it was not even financially feasible to eat three meals a day there. Although GW has tried to take steps to make dining on campus more affordable, they haven’t been effective. Meal deals, which are discounted meal combinations offered at some GWorld-friendly restaurants, are not always better deals for students, and the extra $200 of GWorld that was added to dining plans last year is just more money out of students’ and their families’ pockets.
If the University will not change their current plan and give students a 10 percent discount for using GWorld, then they should at least make the meal plan optional. Students should have a say in how they choose to spend their money. This would especially be helpful for upperclassmen who tend to cook more and want to spend where they please, like the Trader Joe’s near campus, which does not accept GWorld.
There are even smaller things GW can do to help students, like adding a Vern Express stop near the Safeway by the Mount Vernon Campus, which former SA presidential candidate Christina Giordano campaigned for in the 2016 election. This would make it easier for students to shop for more affordable groceries and not be restricted to the more expensive Whole Foods. For students, having access to an inexpensive grocery store could go a long way in helping to mitigate the costs of living in a city like D.C.
GW moved in the right direction by creating The Store and acknowledging that food insecurity is an issue on campus. But the fact that The Store was needed in the first place is an issue, and it is a Band-Aid more than anything else. It’s clear that the University needs to take a hard look at the required meal plan and find a way to feed its students. We are here to learn, and we cannot do that while worrying about how to pay for our next meal.
The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Irene Ly and contributing opinions editor Renee Pineda, based on discussions with managing director Melissa Holzberg, managing editor Tyler Loveless, sports editor Matt Cullen, copy editor Melissa Schapiro and design editor Zach Slotkin.