District House vendors reopen to on-campus cohort grappling with food insecurity

Media Credit: Grace Hromin | Assistant Photo Editor

Basement dining capacity in District House is limited to 25 percent capacity, in accordance with D.C.'s guidelines for indoor dining.

Three GWorld vendors have reopened in District House over the past month, providing a few more options for students struggling to find open vendors this semester.

Chick-fil-A, Kin’s Sushi and GRK Fresh Greek reopened in District House for the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19 in D.C., expanding options with 1,500 students returning to campus this semester. Residential students said the openings expand their dining options, but limited hours and a lack of affordable options have intensified food insecurity while more than 30 GWorld vendors remain closed.

Karen Zinn, the associate vice president of business services, said Sol Mexican Grill reopened last fall, Chick-fil-A reopened last month and both GRK and Kin’s reopened earlier this month in the District basement. Officials cut basement seating to 25 percent capacity – per D.C.’s dining restrictions – and limit access to students on campus.

Zinn said safety is the “top priority” driving reopening guidelines, which require COVID-19 testing for employees and the installation of hand sanitizer dispensers, social distancing signage and plexiglass barriers at registers.

“In addition to District House, other on-campus dining partners who have direct street front access are open for the spring, and the University is working closely with all dining partners to promote their businesses and work with them through this difficult time so that they may remain open for our community,” Zinn said in an email.

Zinn said officials partnered with the Office of Campus Living and Residential Education to promote dining options for students on campus via email and social media. She said District House vendors follow public health “advice and direction” from the Milken Institute School of Public Health, the D.C. government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep dining safe.

Zinn declined to say whether any additional GWorld vendors will reopen this semester.

Kostas Loi, a manager at GRK Fresh Greek, said he had to wait for officials to greenlight GRK’s return to District before reopening earlier this month, and business has been “very slow” during the first two weeks back. He said GRK has reeled in about 10 to 12 customers per day, which he said doesn’t even reach 10 percent of the number of daily customers from before the pandemic.

Loi said dining officials had been discussing the prospect of reopening the location for about three to four months before February, brainstorming when and how to reopen as more students returned. He said he hopes GRK will be able to maintain operations deeper into the semester, but the number of student customers, who make up 95 percent of the clientele base, will ultimately determine the business’s future.

“Hopefully, like I said, people will come back and we start to be normal, the way it was,” he said. “We don’t know that, but at least being able to pay rent and expenses to be open.”

GWorld vendors have suffered from the lack of student customers on campus over the past year with the pandemic keeping the majority of students off campus.

Zoubida Bicane, a sophomore living in Shenkman Hall, said finding affordable dining options has been challenging despite the vendors reopening in District House, where she buys meals about twice a week. She added that some vendors close earlier than their hours posted online suggest.

Bicane said she buys groceries from Trader Joe’s and cooks most of her meals to account for the shortage of campus vendors and avoids “really expensive” prices at Whole Foods. She said she hopes more vendors like Bindaas, Gallery Gourmet Market and Dunkin’ Donuts reopen later this semester.

“It’s been hard finding other vendors, other restaurants that I’ve been used to going to since freshman year that just aren’t available because a lot of them have closed down, so it’s been pretty difficult,” Bicane said.

Edy Koenigs, a freshman living in Shenkman Hall, said she’s also struggled to find dining options on campus, noting that the majority of spots that are currently open are more expensive than others that are currently closed. She said limited hours, like Chick-fil-A’s 6 p.m. closing time, limit meal options.

“GW in general can be expensive, but the places that are available to students, especially students in special circumstances, isn’t the best right now,” Koenigs said.

Koenig said she’s waiting for more vendors in Shenkman Hall, where Potbelly Sandwich Shop currently operates, to open for residential students, since she doesn’t have time to commute to other more affordable spots, like local grocery stores.

Freshman Genevieve Mumma, who lives in Shenkman Hall, said finding campus dining options has become “significantly easier” with vendors reopening in District, where she’s bought meals at least once a week. Mumma said she finds the close location helpful because it’s near her friends who live in the building and offers space to study.

“The reopening of those popular places has definitely been beneficial to me,” Mumma said. “I’d say I’ve been to Chick-fil-A probably an unhealthy number of times since it’s opened, and like I said before, it’s just very convenient because a lot of students like to go to that basement in District to work. I’ve gone down there a lot to refocus.”

But Mumma said dining hours at District vendors like Chick-fil-A have been “confusing” and “contradictory” since the location will sometimes open late after it’s slated to start service at 11 a.m. She said dining options on campus remain limited and fail to match the level of availability she expected before arriving on campus last fall.

“It’s a little disappointing on how their dining is a lot more limited than I expected, especially because GW doesn’t have dining halls, and we have that more untraditional approach to it,” she said.

A representative for Kin’s did not return a request for comment. A representative for Chick-fil-A couldn’t be reached for comment.

Francisco Camacho and Henry Deng contributed reporting.

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