Officials increase dining dollars for third consecutive year

Media Credit: Elizabeth Rickert | Staff Photographer

Senior Sage Wylie, a member of the food insecurity task force and a former Food Institute fellow, said the group worked with the Office of Survey Research and Analysis to send out a survey to 2,000 randomly sampled students earlier this month asking how they pay for meals.

For the third consecutive year since switching to an “open” dining plan, officials are boosting the amount students have to spend at local restaurants and shops.

Next year, students with an in-unit kitchen will have $3,050 to spend, while those without will budget $4,750 – up $250 and $150 from this academic year, respectively. Officials said the decision follows a monthslong review of a newly implemented dining plan allocating funds based on room setup, finding that students with kitchens are more likely to run out of dining cash before the end of the semester.

“Our goal is to have a dining plan that matches the needs of most of our students, provides students with a great deal of flexibility and enables students to plan for their food needs in a way that makes the most sense for the individual during their time at GW,” University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email.

She added that officials will pilot a dining app this semester to help students “better forecast their dining spending.” More information about the app’s hard launch will be available this summer, she said.

The University will also evaluate how many students have used the recently debuted all-you-can-eat options in Pelham Commons on the Mount Vernon Campus, Csellar said.

Officials switched to an “open” dining plan in fall 2016, allowing students to spend their GWorld cash at local vendors instead of J Street, Foggy Bottom’s only dining hall, which closed that summer. The University added $200 to students’ dining plans the next year amid ongoing concerns about food insecurity, but students – who had between $1,200 and $4,100 to spend on meals each day depending on their academic year – still said running out of dining dollars was the norm.

The Board of Trustees then approved a new dining model again boosting dining dollars and creating dining plans based on whether students had an in-unit kitchen. The University will continue that model next year with another increase in funds.

In interviews, more than 25 students said this year’s dining plan has helped pay for more meals than in the past, but the amount is still not enough to keep up with the relatively high cost of dining on campus.

Senior Daniel Cardona said while the University upped the amount of cash on his card, the plan did not fit his eating habits because he seldom uses his kitchen in South Hall to cook. He said J Street, which closed at the end of his freshman year, boasted several low-cost meals.

Meals at vendors like Panera Bread, Chipotle and South Block can clock in at about $10, $7 and $11, respectively. With 114 days in the spring semester, not including the week of spring break, students with a kitchen in their residence hall room can spend about $12 each day, while students without a kitchen can spend about $20 per day.

“When we had J Street, there were cheaper options that didn’t involve cooking,” he said. “The fact that we don’t have a J Street, the options we have around campus are expensive to the point where we feel like we have a lot of GWorld money, but at the end of the day, we don’t have a lot.”

Sophomore Devon Link said that instead of offering more GWorld funds, officials should add more resources, like a kitchen in Thurston Hall or more communal pots and pans, so students do not feel compelled to frequently eat out. Residence Hall Association leaders offered cooking classes to first-year students last semester to help students prepare healthy meals.

“It could be more about what they put into it rather than the amount of money students have to pay,” she said.

Food insecurity has remained a top concern on campus over the past several years. Students opened a food pantry in 2016, and some student leaders formed a food insecurity task force last semester focused on identifying the reasons why students may struggle to pay for meals.

A report compiled last spring also found that nearly 40 percent of students have either run out of food or skipped meals because they did not have enough money or could not afford to eat.

Senior Sage Wylie, a member of the food insecurity task force and a former Food Institute fellow, said the group worked with the Office of Survey Research and Analysis to send out a survey to 2,000 randomly sampled students earlier this month asking how they pay for meals. The task force is aiming for a 30 percent response rate, she said.

Wylie said members of the task force will analyze the survey results after it closes later this month and compile a public report later this semester including recommendations to improve campus dining.

Wylie said officials could still improve dining services by creating a central eating space for students to feel like they are in a dining hall. Officials revamped the Marvin Center into a “living room” last year, opening Panera Bread in the space where J Street once stood and installing dozens of new couches and tables for students to eat and socialize.

“Everyone’s going off to internships and second jobs and all of that stuff, so a central dining place would be really great in fostering that sense of community,” she said. “But first and foremost, finding affordable food on campus is the immediate priority.”

Student Association President Ashley Le, a member of the task force, said food insecurity “goes beyond” affordability and requires access to healthy food that fulfills different dietary needs.

Officials added Healthy Fresh Meals, a prepared meal delivery service, as a GWorld vendor last summer. SA leaders also partnered with Hungry Harvest, a produce delivery service, last academic year to give students food that would otherwise be tossed.

“I commend the University for making this a priority and for listening to students when we are expressing concerns about the state of dining at GW,” she said. “But I think there’s a lot more that can be done and money will not always be the last solution.”

Nia Lartey contributed reporting.

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