Columns, Opinions

Stapleford ’21: Make spring break dining more accessible

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, April 15, 2018

When the University established need-blind admissions policies in 2002 and then in December 2017 announced the elimination of loans from undergraduate financial aid packages, it joined many of its peer institutions in making a profound statement to the world that a student’s ability to pay should never keep them from obtaining a first-rate education. While the changes thus far are deeply consequential, there are still more reforms Brown needs to make if it truly wishes to be a place that any student, no matter their income level, can comfortably attend. A critical next step is for the University to expand access to affordable dining services for all students during spring break.

Brown Dining Services does not allow students to utilize their regular meal plan during the break, but instead requires them to purchase a separate plan, which costs $288, to eat on campus during break. Students can, however, qualify to receive the plan gratuit, through an emergency fund program for students “with exceptionally high demonstrated financial need,” according to UFunds. Unfortunately, the threshold of eligibility for this program is not public information. For the many who don’t quite fall into this category but still struggle to make ends meet — particularly when extraneous costs arise — paying for food over spring break is an unreasonable burden, particularly at a university that prides itself on being accessible.

It’s important to acknowledge that for many, spring break is perceived as an exercise in cutting loose. It’s a time when many students leave campus, and unlike winter and Thanksgiving breaks, where family is a focus, spring break is culturally associated with heading somewhere tropical or abroad, largely for the purpose of drinking too much, eating too much and forgetting entirely about the responsibilities of college.

There is a large segment of the Brown student body, though, for whom spring break is more stressful than it is sophomoric. For those students who can’t quite afford to leave campus on vacation, the added burden of being unable to use one’s regular meal plan at a dining hall that is nonetheless open during break is quite significant. A small adjustment to current University dining services policy could translate into huge stress relief for students who do find themselves in this situation.

As with any proposal involving the expansion of services for students, it’s understandable for administrators — even those who are particularly sensitive to students’ financial concerns — to be wary of the costs associated with continuing dining services through spring break. Luckily, programs at peer institutions provide templates for us to consider when it comes to affordability.

Currently, dining at the Ratty during spring break costs $10.66 per meal and has to be purchased within a full set of meals for the spring break week, which is incredibly cost prohibitive. If the University does not want to go so far as to allow students to use their regular swipes during break, a more affordable feature could be a system in which students are able to purchase whatever number of meals they want for the week, at a more affordable price.

Yale introduced a similar program in 2013, which allows students to pre-purchase individual meals at $7 each to use at any time during the break. This would be a much more gracious option for the University to provide, because it allows students to selectively decide how many prepared meals they are willing to pay for each day and at a much lower cost per meal. But, if Brown were to allow students to swipe in on their regular plan, it would be following peer institutions who currently do the same and have found a way to make it cost feasible, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Southern California.

Furthermore, while break may accentuate the issue of food insecurity on college campuses, it is by no means the only moment each year that some students will face food insecurity. If anything, Brown’s spring break dining services just serve as a critical place for us to start considering the ways in which students at Brown could be affected by food insecurity on a daily basis.

Nationally, according to a survey of 40,000 college students, 36 percent of respondents reported experiencing food insecurity at some point this school year. Many students reported being unable to buy a required textbook, being unable to focus in class, missing class or even dropping a class altogether as a result of being hungry. Moreover, the huge toll on one’s mental health cannot be ignored — it likely feels stressful and shameful to be unable to afford sufficient food, particularly in an environment where many students are quite privileged with the necessary resources to get by comfortably.

As an educational institution, we are compelled to acknowledge the profound effect that food can have on one’s ability to be academically successful. As a community that holds itself to a high academic standard, we must realize our obligation to ensure every student has sufficient access to food so that they are set up with the best opportunity to reap the most of their time here.

Schools like Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have created campus food banks that allow students who need a little extra food assistance to take dietary staples at any time during the school year at no cost. These banks even make a point of reaching out and advertising to students about this option during the break. Even more comprehensively, the University of Wisconsin-Madison provides students with a list on their main food website of all available free food options around campus — including a hot dinner prepared for students to enjoy for free every Tuesday night using surplus dining hall ingredients. The introduction of even just one of these services could make a huge difference in the lives of many students in our community.

As an institution, Brown already commits itself to equality of access to a premier education. The University has stated to the world that it is devoted to making itself a place where lower income students can feasibly come for their college education. It’s unfair, frankly, to accept students, promising each one tuition aid tailored to their specific financial needs, without also affording every single student adequate access to food for every single day of their time here. Anything less is a false promise.

Krista Stapleford ’21 can be reached at krista_stapleford@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.