The University will open three new dining halls next fall as part of a dramatic overhaul of GW’s dining system that officials hope will help resolve food insecurity on campus.
Officials will construct new dining halls in District House and Thurston and Shenkman halls by fall 2022, which will provide all-you-can-eat meal access under an unlimited dining plan, according to an email from Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Cissy Petty Monday. Students will soon have access to the most communal dining facilities on the Foggy Bottom Campus in years under the plan, following a string of semesters that students have spent searching for more affordable dining options.
The email, issued to University community members, states that officials will open a “redesigned” Pelham Commons on the Mount Vernon Campus – GW’s only dining hall during the past five years – with a new seating area and food stations this fall. Diaz said in an interview with The Hatchet that officials are also considering adding a dining hall to Mitchell Hall.
“Dining halls provide the benefit of offering many healthy and high-quality food options in one location, and they are a consistent and affordable option for students experiencing food insecurity,” the email reads. “We believe that accessing healthy, affordable food should never be a concern for our community.”
The University transitioned to an open dining plan in 2016 following the closure of J Street, the Foggy Bottom Campus’ only communal dining hall at the time. Officials have since loaded students’ GWorld cards each semester with a balance based on their meal plan, which can be used to make purchases at dozens of dining partners on and near campus.
The email states that the unlimited meal plan options will be available this year for students living on the Vern, and other students will be “phased in” over the next few years. Students will still have dining dollars to spend at GWorld vendors, according to the email.
The email states the University Student Center will also receive new retail options in fall 2023. Karen Zinn, the associate vice president of business services, said in an interview that the Chick-fil-A in District House will eventually relocate to the student center, and the Potbelly in Shenkman Hall will be refreshed with a “new retail concept” under the new plan. She said all other vendors in District House and Shenkman Hall will be removed from campus before next fall as their contracts expire and officials renovate the spaces after the upcoming school year.
The GWorld vendors in District House reopened in August, according an email sent to the GW community earlier this month, and Zinn said they will continue operating for the rest of the school year. Teashi and Potbelly are both currently open in Shenkman Hall, but leases for all other Shenkman Hall vendors – Dunkin’, Baskin Robbins, Gallery Gourmet Market & Dry Cleaners and Gallery Salad Bar & Grill – have already expired and will not be renewed, she said.
Zinn said students living on the Vern this year will be allowed eight swipes per week to access all-you-can-eat meals at the Pelham Commons dining hall in addition to a dining dollar balance for other GWorld vendors. Zinn said officials will also renovate Higher Grounds Coffee Shop at Ames Hall during the upcoming spring semester.
She said officials consulted two committees for the new dining plan – a steering committee with students, faculty, staff and University stakeholders as well as a student subcommittee that included leaders from major student organizations like the Student Association and the Residence Hall Association.
The email states that the new dining system will come through a partnership with Chartwells Higher Education, a subsidiary of British foodservice company Compass Group and a college dining company that provides food services to about 300 campuses across the country, according to its website.
Chartwells will be the University’s fourth dining partner in five years — GW’s contract with Sodexo ended in 2016 with the closure of J Street and its replacement provider, Restaurant Associates, pulled out a year into its contract. SAGE Dining Services has since provided all-you-can-eat services to the Vern’s Pelham Commons after signing a new contract with the University in April of 2018.
Zinn said Chartwells will work to provide a “wide range” of food options, including multicultural meals like Halal or Caribbean cuisine and vegan, vegetarian and allergen-free meals for students with strict dietary restrictions. She said the company will provide food throughout the day and also provide late-night options.
“The overarching principles are to have choice, to have fun choices, to have places that students are going to call their own and to have operating hours that fit the lifestyle and life cycle of a student as they’re going throughout their class day,” Zinn said.
Diaz said the University signed the new dining partnership with service company Chartwells to offer quality, affordable and accessible meals to resolve food insecurity issues that have persisted on campus for years through thin GWorld budgets and pricey dining options. He said Chartwells’ commitment to sustainability, including an agreement to abide by the University’s commitment to eliminate single-use plastics on campus earlier this summer, played a role in officials’ decision to partner with the company.
Diaz said while most details have yet to be finalized, he expects a single-digit percentage price increase for students’ meal plans.
“To us, this wasn’t about converting from one model to the next, get a partner and just be done with it,” Diaz said in an interview. “We needed this partner to really appreciate exactly what the drivers were.”
Food insecurity issues have intensified without access to a dining hall on the main campus. A public report found nearly 40 percent of students on campus were food insecure in early 2018, forcing officials to increase dining dollar budgets during each of the three school years following J Street’s closure.
Diaz said the 225-seat Thurston Hall dining facility will be completed as a part of ongoing renovations to the building, and Shenkman Hall will be renovated during the school year before the new dining program launches across campus next fall. He said the full transition to the new dining plan could take two or three years, with much planning surrounding meals, finances and operational hours still to be finalized.
Chartwells Vice President of Operations Jennifer Schirmacher expressed excitement for the contract with GW in an email statement to The Hatchet.
“We are excited to bring a unique and increasingly customized dining program to the George Washington University community,” Schirmacher said. “As a campus partner, our approach is to truly align with GW’s culture creating a program that celebrates the campus’ rich history and helps students thrive.”
Diaz said the University will hire a “handful” of new staff members to manage the dining plan, but most new employees will be contracted through Chartwells.
Petty said stories of students eating meals alone because of high prices or a lack of communal dining space “broke her heart,” and she hopes the new system will allow students to build relationships and communities within their residence halls.
“While food choice is personal, mealtimes are communal – you eat as a family, you eat with your friends,” Petty said. “There’s opportunities to share a meal, share a table and I love that concept.”
Lauren Sforza and Jarrod Wardwell contributed reporting.