Dining overhaul is a positive step for sustainability, community on campus

It’s been a long time coming, but GW is finally getting dining halls again. Over the next few years, three all-you-can-eat dining halls will be constructed in District House and Thurston and Shenkman halls. GW’s current dining plan offers freedom of choice but is also pricey and fragmented, leaving many students unable to afford enough food or adhere to dietary restrictions. The University’s new dining plan on paper seems like a positive step that could give students the opportunity to eat healthy and affordable food sustainably – but GW should make sure it actually ends up being reasonably priced in practice.

The new plan should be an innovative and meaningful step toward making GW more sustainable in the long run. Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz and Dean of Students Cissy Petty said in an email to the GW community last month that the dining halls will operate through a partnership with Chartwells Higher Education, a college dining hall company. In an interview with The Hatchet last month, Diaz said that the University chose Chartwells because they are also committed to abiding by the University’s policy to eliminate single-use plastics, which bodes well. Under the current plan, GW can’t mandate restaurants around campus to reduce single-use plastics or ask them to buy local ingredients because they belong to larger companies that do not necessarily have the same type of relationship that a University has to a company that provides dining halls.

The University should insist that the food will be sourced locally to reduce the environmental impact caused by the transportation necessary to import food from larger farms, encourage sustainable agriculture and benefit the local community by supporting farmers in the area. Buying ingredients from local grocers, streamlining food sources and enforcing policies like banning single-use plastics in dining halls are just some of ways that GW can reduce its carbon footprint through the new dining plan.

Dining halls also provide a sense of community, especially for incoming freshmen, who are entering the big and chaotic GW environment for the first time and trying to form friendships. The first couple semesters of college can be tumultuous, and dining halls can become a place where students get acquainted with their peers. As of now, with the exception of students living on the Mount Vernon Campus, who have easy access to Pelham Commons, students have to decide which restaurant to eat at for many of their meals. This is can be a lonely endeavor because each student is constantly going to different vendors. But the new plan will encourage students to eat their meals in one of the three dining halls, where they are likely to see the same peers continuously.  The dining halls can provide refuge for students with varying schedules because they will serve as a reliable source of food at any time of day.

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GW tends to be a fairly fragmented place socially, with students self-sorting into small groups or student organizations. There is very little school spirit binding everyone together, which can make it hard to feel camaraderie with other students. More opportunities for students to meet people outside their immediate social circles seems like a great way to foster more of a sense of community at the University.

As the GW community welcomes these long-awaited changes, the University must still ensure that the new dining plan ends up being affordable in practice. The problem of food insecurity at GW stems from the steep price of food in Foggy Bottom – an all-you-can-eat dining hall could alleviate that only if paying for it doesn’t break the bank. Officials said the cost of GWorld could see a “single-digit increase,” which is promising, but could still end up being hundreds of dollars. The dining plan mandated for Mount Vernon Campus residents, the so-called “Pelham Plan,” seems like the closest point of comparison among current dining options. That plan is a hybrid of regular GWorld dining dollars and meal swipes at Pelham Commons – which is similar to a traditional dining hall – and costs $5,200 per year. That’s a pretty solid chunk of money, which could hit lower-income students especially hard, and GW should clarify what price increases students may have to deal with.

Almost everyone at GW has either personally struggled to consistently afford good-quality food, or knows someone who has. Over the next few years, as dining halls are phased in, it looks like that could finally change. If GW makes sure the new system is actually affordable for students, University dining will become a community-building experience instead of a culinary free-for-all.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake, based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller, copy editor Jaden DiMauro and assistant copy editor Karina Ochoa Berkley.*

*Ochoa Berkley advised GW Dining in a separate capacity as vice president for sustainability for the Student Association. 

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