Column: Crowded dining halls could jeopardize food security through GW’s new meal plan

I never thought I would be turned away from one of GW’s newly opened dining halls empty handed, but that’s exactly what happened when I tried eating at Thurston Hall earlier this month. GW’s newest dining venue is crowded, mismanaged and fails to give students the food options they need and deserve.

GW’s new all-you-care-to-eat dining halls and meal swipe system will replace its current dining dollar plan, which gives students a limited amount of money compared to the expensive price of eating in D.C. The swipe system will commence in the spring, but the first dining hall to open in Foggy Bottom lacks the capacity to seat more than 225 students, the rest of whom are often refused entry until the space clears. If the University cannot address and resolve this issue, students will be cut off from their basic right to accessible food options when they want to eat on campus. Before implementing the meal swipe plan, officials must open the dining hall in Shenkman Hall on time in January to give students the space they need to eat.

Delays and shortcomings have plagued the rollout of GW’s new all-you-care-to-eat dining system since 2021. Officials announced last year that four reimagined dining halls would be open for the current fall semester. By the start of the 2022-23 school year, only one – The Eatery at Pelham Commons – was open on the Mount Vernon Campus, where only a small fraction of undergraduate students live. While The Eatery may serve students on the Vern, it’s unreasonable to expect students living in Foggy Bottom to take a round trip on the Mount Vernon Express just for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The Foggy Bottom dining halls – Thurston, Shenkman and District House – should have all been ready for the start of the 2022-23 school year, but officials pushed back the opening dates of the Thurston and Shenkman dining halls and scrapped their original plans for District House. The Thurston dining hall was set for September but opened earlier this month, and Shenkman is set to open in January. The District House dining hall opened in September, but as a restaurant-based system rather than an all-you-can-eat dining hall. Students found out about the changes from unexpected emails in the middle of the summer notifying them about these delays.

Though Thurston offers relatively affordable meals after opening, the biggest issue has been crowds and logistics. The capacity for the Thurston dining hall is 225, compared to 675 at American University and 2,300 at Howard University’s two dining halls. American and Howard also happen to have lower undergraduate populations than GW – around 8,000 and 9,000 respectively, compared to around 12,000 at GW – which means that our dining halls are tiny both in actual size and in proportion to our student body.

The logistical failures at Thurston speak to GW’s complete mismanagement of its dining halls. Students can choose to either sit down and eat or get a to-go box when they enter the dining hall. To make the most of the advertised all-you-can-eat experience, students are taking up the already-limited number of seats to enjoy longer and theoretically unlimited sit-down meals. Officials expect to serve 750 to 800 students during the daily four-and-a-half hour dinner period as if students will take at least an hour to eat – a far cry from the constant flow of customers at quick, accessible venues like Western Market. That leisurely pace may work in the restaurant industry, but that is not the case at GW. Because of the capacity crunch, the dining hall has less of a relaxed “all-you-care-to-eat” feeling than a “hurry-up-and-eat” and “take-what-you-can-get” atmosphere.

Maura Kelly-Yuoh | Staff Cartoonist

The crowd issues at Thurston already mean that students are not able to eat when they want to, so the longer the Shenkman dining hall remains closed, the more strained Thurston becomes. The switch to a swipe-based system, which will occur in January, will only make things worse if students cannot eat at the overcrowded dining halls. Freshmen on the meal swipe plan would have less money to spend on other vendors for the semester depending on their meal plan, which cuts dining dollar balances to $500, $250 or $100. If or when students run out of dining dollars, they and their parents will be sure to complain about GW’s negligence and lack of food options, creating a logistical and public relations nightmare for GW.

As one of the most well-respected universities in the country, GW must make sure that students have full access to the dining halls when our meal swipe system comes into place. Pushing back the opening of Shenkman yet again while reducing the dining dollar balance by switching to a meal swipe system would risk students’ nutritional well-being.

Instead, officials should prevent any further delays to the dining hall rollout, or they can admit they were not ready for the meal swipe system in the first place. GW could still extend our current dining-dollar-only plan to the spring semester to ensure that students will be able to find food outside of the dining halls when they are at capacity, while also making sure Shenkman is fully ready to relieve crowds from Thurston Hall.

The administration cannot allow students to potentially go hungry some nights, and it’s not fair that many students rely on one dining hall in Foggy Bottom that seems to always be at or near capacity. Officials need to make smart choices when it comes to the immediate future of dining at GW. Failure is not an option for the administration when it comes to the food security of students.

Silas Kennedy, a freshman majoring in international affairs and political communications, is an opinions writer.

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