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Environmental Program House advocates for more sophomore meal plan exemptions

EPH argues its off-campus meal plan is more affordable, sustainable

Due to the sophomore meal plan requirement imposed June 2019, several Environmental Program House members argue that their houses are now unable to meet their mission without more sophomore meal plan exemptions. The University granted eight meal plan exemptions for sophomores in each EPH for the 2020-21 academic year.

North House and West House, the two EPHs, allow members to live in or out of the houses, according to West House’s website. Student members cook their own sustainable vegetarian meals with local and ethically-sourced produce six nights per week. They purchase food independently from the University and promote a non-hierarchical membership structure through various chores, such as cooking and cleaning, West House member Bess Renjilian ’21 said.

The exemptions are contingent on “formalizing (EPH’s) communal dining practices starting this semester,” Director of Dining Programs George Barboza wrote in a Feb. 10 email to EPH representatives. 

After a semester of conversations between EPH representatives and University administrators, Dining Services decided to provide EPH with a “group exemption” for up to 16 in-house sophomore members for the academic year 2020-21, Barboza wrote in a Feb. 10 email to EPH representatives detailing the decision. 

EPH members claim that 16 sophomore meal plan exemptions — eight for each house — is insufficient, West House member Carolyn Lober ’21 said. These exemptions were granted after a months-long process EPH members undertook to advocate for official exemptions.

The number of exemptions was calculated based on the average number of sophomores living in the houses over the past two years, Barboza explained in his Feb. 10 email. Furthermore, the decision to grant a group exemption was “based on the recognition of the tradition of the living/dining/communal nature of the program,” Barboza wrote in an email to The Herald.

EPH’s commitment to community and food security

Program members interviewed by The Herald all joined EPH as underclassmen and emphasized the integral role sophomores play in the houses. The sophomore meal plan requirement “has made it a lot harder for us to fill spots and have a well-rounded community,” North House member and Residential Peer Leader Samantha Valentine ’21 said. 

If EPH had not been granted any exemptions, recruiting enough members would have been more difficult, making EPH’s programming unsustainable due to financial and labor constraints, according to West House member Saoirse Maher Greene ’21. Without sufficient numbers, “everyone is having to perform a lot more labor, and that kind of strain affects everyone in the community,” MaherGreene said. 

According to the West House website, “the cornerstone of our community is our communal dinners Sunday–Friday nights.”

In presenting their case for sophomore meal plan exemptions, MaherGreene, Valentine, Renjilian, Lober and West House member Eric Mischell ’20 all emphasized the low cost and high quality of food available through EPH. 

“It’s very much a financial issue of true food security,” Valentine said, noting the much higher cost of official University meal plans compared to EPH’s program. 

The four highest University meal plans available to sophomores cost between $2,783 and $2,956 per semester. Both tiers of EPH’s dining program cost less than $500 per semester: The lesser option, which provides seven meals per week, costs $300, while the full-time membership gives unlimited meals per week for $500, according to West House’s website. Financial aid and installment plans are also available.

Further, the EPH orders food in bulk from local producers, lowering the cost for students who help with cooking while also minimizing environmental and health concerns, Renjilian said.

Process to obtain exemptions

According to Renjilian, EPH members began communicating with University administrators following this summer’s announcement of the meal plan requirement for sophomores. As a result of these efforts, the University granted 15 exemptions for sophomores in EPH in fall 2019, and later added two additional exemptions for this spring.

The University “said that the exemptions (they granted) for this year were justified because they had created the new (sophomore meal plan) mandate after we had accepted people,” Mischell said.

But EPH members said that in their efforts to secure sophomore exemptions to the meal plan for next fall, they encountered greater difficulties in reaching an agreement with University administrators. 

In order to obtain meal plan exemptions for 2020-21, EPH members began communicating with University offices at the beginning of last semester, including the Office of Campus Life, Dining Services, the Student Activities Office and the Office of the Dean of the College, Mischell said.

North House member Sam Wertheimer ’21.5 said that throughout the process, administrators guided EPH representatives back and forth between offices without a clear explanation of the process and criteria to receive exemptions. “They waited us out. That’s how it felt,” Wertheimer said.

But in an email to The Herald, Barboza maintained that the overall process to determine the status of meal plan exemptions for EPH was “engaging and thoughtful,” adding, “I also value and appreciate all perspectives that were presented.

Furthermore, SAO and the Program Houses Office “were not decision makers but shared perspectives and information that came from meetings with students that approached them about this issue,” Director of the Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center and of Student Activities Joie Steele wrote in an email to The Herald.

In conversations with EPH representatives, administrators cited health and safety as well as food insecurity as concerns in determining meal plan exemptions for EPH, Renjilian said. Staff from Environmental Health and Safety, University Risk Management and the Office of Residential Life visited EPH houses Feb. 5 to assess the kitchen conditions, she added.

“It was gratifying that they gave us something, but it was less than … what we were asking for,” Lober said. “I think we were very clear in our communications that we were looking for” exemptions that would include both in- and out-of-house members.

“There still definitely is frustration,” she added. Dining Services “still haven’t really fully expressed their concerns to us, which makes it really hard to make our case” for receiving more exemptions to the meal plan.

EPH members also expressed discontent with the amount of exemptions granted in a Feb. 14 response to Barboza’s Feb. 10 email reviewed by The Herald. On behalf of EPH, Lober wrote that this year, West House had 17 in-house sophomores and North House had “fewer this school year, but this was a direct consequence of uncertainty regarding the meal plans changes … discouraging sophomores from applying.” She explained in the response that each house would need at least 16 exemptions, for a total of 32, in order to include both in- and out-of-house members.

In an April 7 email reviewed by The Herald, Barboza reaffirmed that Dining Services “will be holding firm to granting 16 exemptions” based on “the average total of exemptions granted in recent years and the living/dining/communal nature of EPH.” 

In a message to The Herald, Renjilian wrote that this response came a month and a half after EPH requested that Dining Services reconsider and increase the allotted number of exemptions. While Barboza stated in his most recent email that the number of exemptions granted for the 2020-21 year reflects exemptions given in “recent years,” Renjilan wrote that “that really only means the past year, (which) didn’t actually reflect our typical membership.”

Plans for the future

Dining Services “commits to reviewing this matter again in Jan. 2021 to make a determination on future exemptions,” Barboza wrote in his Feb. 10 email.

In addition, SAO will conduct “a full review of the dining program at the Environmental Program Houses, particularly around dining operations, procurement, food safety and training as well as member support, selection and removal practices,” Barboza wrote.

Before the University evacuated most of campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Megan Fox, assistant director for Greek and program house engagement, planned to hold biweekly meetings with EPH members about their dining program, according to an email Fox sent to EPH representatives Feb. 25. Renjilian said that Fox had not yet met with EPH representatives between Feb. 25 and move-out.

“Now that we’re off campus and many of the people who were advocating are graduating, we aren’t sure that there is really a next step that we could accomplish that would be even noticed or recognized by Dining Services,” Renjilan wrote in a message to The Herald.

“We've been advocating … for almost a year,” she added, “And we ended up with a tenuous, one-year solution that doesn’t reflect our membership numbers or our mission.”


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