College Dining Policies Changed, Protested and Changed Again

Three days before the beginning of the 2018 fall semester, Swarthmore students received information about changes to late night and weekend meal options that had been made over the summer. Some of the changes, especially the shortened hours at Essie’s and increased control over what combination of foods can be bought there at what times, ignited discussion and protest among students.

Resident Assistants (RAs) were informed of these changes during their pre-semester training. Dining services was met with immediate pushback from RAs regarding the new changes. The heated discussions about these changes soon lead to Alex Jin’s ‘19 decision to create a petition: a platform for voices of dissent within the RA community.

“I made a very simple google form petition and posted it on Facebook (personal wall and group page) the night of August 22nd,” Jin wrote in an email to Voices.

Within forty-eight hours, the petition had gained around three hundred signatures. A couple of days later, it had reached four-hundred fifty.

“On August 26th, I tried to summarize the responses as best as I could and sent the petition in an email to Interim Dean of Students Jim Terhune, Assistant Director of Residential Communities Isaiah Thomas, Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services Anthony Coschignano, and Dining Services staff,” wrote Jin.

Like every policy, the changes to dining options at Swarthmore will affect different constituents differently. For example, in the past, low income students especially have relied on Essie’s meal swipes to purchase grocery-like snack items that are, under the new meal plan, largely inaccessible on campus.

Anthony Coschignano, Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services, explained some of the planned benefits of these new schedules in an email to Voices. “Essie’s hours were streamlined to be able to offer more dining options and hours at locations that were popular, and also to make scheduling more consistent across campus dining locations, for the benefit of all our community members…The request for the Science Center’s extended hours was also one we’d received consistently, and are glad to now be able to accommodate.”

Jin presented the petition to Dean Terhune, Mr. Coschignano and Mr. Thomas along with an email that outlined his purpose. “I write to you today with the simple hope that you would reconsider the decision to significantly decrease hours of operation at the Essie Mae's snack bar...As you will see below, students have expressed a litany of concerns, including: 1) some students require Essie's to sustain themselves. This includes: students with dietary restrictions, student athletes with late practices, students with late night classes that run until 10pm, and individuals who study late into the night and forego a full meal at Sharples; 2) you cannot replace Essie's as a social institution. Neither Paces nor Sci Bar can replace Essie's as such; 3) the flexibility of meal swipes. Many students have an excessive amount of meal swipes and utilize their swipes at Essie's to store up on snacks. Limiting Essie's to pre-selected options and forcing students to use their points at Paces is besides the whole point of having a late-night snack option at Essie's.”

The concerns that Jin presented to these administrators and staff were diverse and heart-felt.

“Essie’s is a staple for turning study groups into friendships. It is completely a social space, very few people work in Essies so it gives students an opportunity to take a break. Sci commons is a workspace, meaning that it is not a place for much needed study breaks,” offered Laura Wagner ‘20.

Sam Gardner ‘19, opposes the change for other reasons. “What am I supposed to do after a 7-10pm class?...Telling us that we can't have good sci center hours if we want good Essie's hours is wrong and another insult from Swarthmore's administration.”

Jasmine Betancourt ‘20, brought up concerns regarding increased control of what students can and cannot buy. “When I realized that there were several snacks on there that would be completely excluded from using meals, I became immediately concerned about how I would be able to stock up some of my favorite snack. I hardly ever used my late night meal to get an entree, but rather to buy breakfast for the next day or to stock up my room with snacks. It was really nice to be able to use meals to buy those things because I like to save up my points for the breaks, when most campus dining locations close.”

A couple of students who sit on the Ad-Hoc Committee for Wellbeing, Belonging and Social life also objected to the change.

“As part of our discussions on the Ad Hoc Committee for Wellbeing, Inclusion, and Social Life, we emphasized a lot the fact that Essie's was a really social and vibrant place late at night,” wrote Francisco Verón ‘19 on Jin’s petition. “Essie's is one of the few social spaces we have where people go to hang out and take a break from working. Taking this away from the Swarthmore student community seems unwise to me if we are thinking about student wellbeing.”

Jin’s petition offered a space for needs concerning physical sustenance as well as social space to be voiced. He wrote to Voices, “It seems clear that the trade-off of closing Essie's [and opening Sci longer]  was never discussed with students. It is honestly shocking how administration could continue to forego the input and voices of students in big campus decisions given the events of last Spring and our longstanding Quaker heritage that emphasizes communal input.”

Regarding the decision-making process, Coschignano offers, “We [The Dining Services Advisory Committee] approach the dining program as a whole when considering programmatic changes, taking a wide variety of things into account. This includes but is not limited to: students’ schedules, student feedback, menu variety, hours and location of campus dining options, access to food in the Ville, operational sustainability, and scheduling consistency for not only our guests but also our dining services team members.”

Voices also spoke to a student worker at Essie’s about their perspective on the recent changes. “In some ways it’s nice as a worker because you get out earlier so you don’t have to stay. A lot of times if people are hanging out in Essie’s, they hang out ‘til last minute so you’re really like sweeping under people’s feet which is fine but it’s nice as a worker because you get to leave earlier.”

They continued, saying, “in other ways it’s less fun because we don’t get to pre-make sandwiches anymore or personalize sandwiches as much anymore which makes the job fun, when you get to add things and mess around with things.”

From their perspective as a student, they offered, “if you think about it, there are way less options at the coffee bar than there are at Essie’s, which means you’re giving people way less actual nourishment… I think that’s a thing the college really has to take accountability for. You need to make sure your students have actual meals not just snacks and such.”

After the petition was sent in, Jin and his friend and fellow RA Guin Mesh ‘19 proceeded to meet with Dean Terhune, Anthony Coschignano, and Assistant Director of Student Activities and Leadership Andrew Barclay on August 30th to discuss the changes and their potential impact on the student body.

In this meeting, Coschignano described to Jin and Mesh that, because of the petition Jin had started and the student responses he heard, Dining Services made the decision to extend Essie’s hours and open it as a social space over the weekends. Dining Services announced this change via email on August 31st.

“I am sensitive to Essie's workers who need to get home at a reasonable hour and I don't think re-extending hours back to midnight on some days is tenable at this point,” Jin wrote to Voices. His vision going forward includes the creation of a dining committee that involves students from all different class years who have significant pull on the decision.

Betancourt wrote to Voices, “I hope that next time these kinds of changes are made, that students from low-income backgrounds be invited to the discussions.”