Columns

Sweren ’15: Hungry, hungry students

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I didn’t make my college decision based on potential dining experiences. Sure, it might have helped to consider how each school feeds its students — just another barometer of an institution’s financial resources and dedication to student life — but in the multivariable game of college roulette, one less variable sounded good to me.

I grew up making food, and save those early high school mornings when oatmeal magically made itself — thanks, Mom — I always involved myself in the cooking process. When I enrolled in Brown’s forced, first-year meal plan, it seemed like an acceptable assurance that I wouldn’t go hungry and could congregate with other students in a fixed place and socialize on a semi-scheduled basis. Yet I’ve been off meal plan since sophomore year.

Everyone loves the Sharpe Refectory; it’s our watering hole. It’s where some relationships are formed that last lifetimes and where other relationships are mediated by plates of eggs and boxes of napkins. It’s where literature is made — heyo, Jeffrey Eugenides!

There’s been a lot of hype about the upcoming renovations. People are loving the idea of an upgrade, even though nothing has happened yet. Sure, a lot of money is thrown at the University that administrators often feel the need to spend as soon as it falls into their hands — and which, by law, they must spend based on donors’ intent — but it frightens me when one of our new provost’s first initiatives is dedicated to creating a more aesthetic way to funnel food into our mouths.

There is no way Brown has the money to create a dining experience akin to that at Princeton’s eating clubs or Yale’s residential college dining halls — the holy grails of cafeterias. I once ate at Cap and Gown. You should have been there.

People talk of the Ratty as though it’s a dinosaur, awaiting a meteor impact or volcanic eruption to render it into non-existence — as though we were at the culinary apocalypse or on “The Road” with no return. But that’s not the case. The Ratty serves legitimate food cooked in legitimate ways: with fire, which people have found reliable for over 300,000 years. The Ratty uses modern-day appliances that became mainstream in the postwar boom of the 1950s, and which many of you use in your dorm kitchens, your off-campus houses’ kitchens and your kitchens at home. The Ratty is old, but so are the books I read at the library, and they satiate me just the same.

Again, I’m not against improvements. I’m just against Brown putting a Band-Aid on its arm when it has a broken foot. The University and Providence have dining options worth pouring money into — for one, the food trucks that dotted Thayer Street. These trucks gave the community much-needed flavor and flair, at least until the Providence Police Department cited multiple trucks for violations and temporarily banned them from parking on or near campus following a complaint from the Hope Street Merchants Association — presumably reflecting complaints from Thayer restaurants.

With subpar food and ambiance, these restaurants would have had every reason to complain. The trucks were stealing their dollars, which led to escalating tensions in 2012, The Herald reported at the time. Instead of rising to the level of their competition and adjusting their models and menus, these hurting restaurants cried uncle. The Providence Police came running and issued citations, and the trucks disappeared, pending hearings and the trucks’ acquisition of licenses.

Instead of dumping resources into an outdated but functional model like the Ratty, Brown should work with the state and the food trucks to bring more dining options to College Hill. To start with, this means creating designated parking spaces for food trucks. Al Dahlberg, director of the Thayer Street District Management Authority and the “primary liaison and lobbyist for the University in the Statehouse and City Hall,” according to the University’s website, said no trucks would be allowed to park in University spaces at a Feb. 5, 2013 TSDMA meeting.

This makes sense, to a degree. There are location issues to resolve. There are environmental issues to consider. There are economic issues to discuss — like how to prevent trucks from enjoying an unfair advantage over commercial restaurants by avoiding rent and state taxes.

But this is an opportunity, not a nuisance. Yes, the trucks should pay taxes, meet health standards and obtain vending licenses. If they violate state regulations, they should be penalized accordingly. But we should open up the space — and the parking spots — for law-abiding vendors to exist.

And here are some other ideas to stir the pot. I’m thinking meal credits at Mama Kim’s, or Bubby Kim’s — my yet-to-be-launched fusion-catessen enterprise. I’m thinking partnerships with extant Thayer staples, such as Bajas and East Side Pockets — places that are as much part of my college dining experience as any iteration of the Ratty. There are ways to navigate this terrain without unsettling the equilibrium and jeopardizing jobs and wages.

A Brown-endorsed relationship with the many independent restaurants and food trucks on College Hill would enrich the undergraduate experience, potentially attract more business to the good restaurants and incentivize the bad ones to improve. While MunchCard — a payment system that gave students discounts at Thayer Street restaurents — offered this kind of innovation when it was launched in 2011, it was suspended indefinitely in 2012, The Herald reported at the time.   

Our campus is growing, our lives are faster and not every student has the time to settle in for a meal — plus, there’s no such thing as a quick Ratty meal. I’m not advocating for a complete abandonment of the dining hall experience. I’m just asking that we embrace our community and do something unique.

Renovate the Ratty. Fine by me. But let us vote with our bellies and our cards and try something new. Give the students a say — and something to eat.


Evan Sweren ’15 is a Herald opinions 
editor.