Protest Uses Extra Meal Swipes to Donate Food

On the heels of last Tuesday’s 24-hour boycott of Campus Dining Services, Oberlin students are protesting the meal plan changes again this week by using extra meal swipes to donate to the local safety net and food assistance organization: Oberlin Community Services. In contrast to the CDS boycott last week — which was criticised by some because the unused meal swipes had already been paid for — the food drive has the potential to affect CDS financially as many claim that CDS relies on students not using all of their daily meal swipes.

“The swipes at the end of the day don’t carry over to the next day,” said event organizer and Conservatory first-year Emmy Hensley. “So I felt obligated to use everything. And I was thinking, ‘Well, what do I do with all of this extra food? Because I’m not eating it.’ So I’ve been donating to [Oberlin Community Services] every week. But once they sent out that email with the whole administrative error thing, I thought, ‘That’s enough. We’re just going to do this.’”

The email Hensley refers to was sent to students by Assistant Vice President Adrian Bautista on March 19. Bautista explained that due to an administrative error students were allowed to register for outdated meal plans which will not be offered in fall 2019. Instead, according to a follow-up email sent April 1 by Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, first-year and second-year students will participate in the GoYeo Plan: a plan that gives students unlimited meal swipes every semester and four Grab-n-Go swipes a day — with an extra $200 in flex for the semester.

“I’m lucky if I even use three swipes a day,” Hensley said. “And I know they’re trying to emphasize food security, but four meals is really extensive. There is definitely a surplus of food. We’re just wasting our money essentially.”

However, Raimondo says that many students’ idea that the current meal plans are wasteful is a misunderstanding of how CDS runs.

“These assumptions are built on a couple of misunderstandings: that Oberlin or CDS ‘profits’ off of plan pricing, which is simply not true — any revenue CDS generates beyond expenses supports the operating budget, including the academic program,” Raimondo wrote in an email to the Review. “Many students also calculate a ‘per plate’ cost by dividing the cost by the number of meals and then compare those to costs to home cooking, fast food, or restaurant preparation — there is either no labor costs, or a reliance on part-time, minimum wage, no-benefit labor models. … To call for smaller or less expensive meal plans would require further job eliminations — something that many students have said that they do not want to see occur.”

Still, many students like Hensley believe that some collective student action is needed. Hensley set up three food donation boxes around campus: one in the Conservatory lounge, another in the King Building lobby, and the last in Wilder Hall. To protest, students are encouraged to use their excess meal swipes to buy non-refrigerated, packaged foods from DeCafé and leave these items in one of the three boxes.

In the Facebook event, Hensley suggests different ways students can use their meal swipes to best serve Oberlin Community Services: “1 meal swipe equates to 7 bottles/cans of juice, soda, LaCroix, etc., [or] 7 granola bars, [or] 15 bags of chips.”

There has been a significant response to the food drive. Over two hundred people responded to the Facebook event, and posters have been put up around campus. Hensley also tallied 230 individual food products donated on Monday night alone, and 243 on Tuesday.

“I think the food drive is a good idea,” College sophomore Robert Stott wrote in an email to the Review. “The food isn’t being used so we might as well give it to people who need it more than us and I hope that it causes the administration to consider not only how many swipes we waste a day but how that might affect different students with different social-economic backgrounds.”

Raimondo disagrees, saying that the meal plans are actually meant to help support low-income students.

“The College plan represents a best practice in preventing food insecurity by ensuring that need-based financial aid covers access to at least three meals a day,” Raimondo wrote. “I hope that we can replace protest with collective problem-solving that brings our community’s creativity, intellectual rigor, and values to bear on identifying the best solution for everyone.”

Hensley hopes the food drive will be a practical form of collective student action to address these issues.

“[The boycotts last week] had the right intentions, but at the same time, in some aspect it was privileged,” Hensley said. “We’re all very privileged to be here [at Oberlin]. And we all have a privilege of some sort because we’re here. But we have all this extra food that we’re locked into paying for, we’ve already paid it. And alongside us, there are people in the Oberlin community who aren’t sure when they’re going to get their next meal.”

Last week’s protests were largely organized by international students. College sophomore Rena Wang, who helped organize the boycotts last week, argued that international students have a more difficult time handling these new meal plan changes.

“Oberlin meets 100 percent demonstrated need for domestic students,” she said. “For international students there’s no federal agency to assess their family contribution, therefore most international students pay in full. And regarding meal plan changes, it seems like it’ll be mostly international students who are actually paying the extra costs.”

Many student organizers feel that it can be difficult to get the administration’s attention.

“They are only half-listening,” wrote Stott. “Kinda nodding and saying, ‘yes uh huh sure,’ and then pushing out half-solutions that end up being more destructive than constructive; at the same time I totally need to acknowledge that it is hard to organize and make this kind of thing work and damn near impossible when there are so many factors and needs to be met. So I don’t think I’d be able to do any better but surely we need more responsibility both on the administrations and the students side … in order to get anywhere productive and good.”

College first-year David Mathisson, who organized the food donation boxes for the boycott last week, is looking more toward the future.

“I feel like there’s a lot of possibility in what to negotiate for and which path gets traveled,” Mathisson said. “There is going to be the final determinant of what the protest does for the student body.”

Hensley is still concerned about student-to-administration communication.

“I’d like to be optimistic about [the future relationship between the College and the administration],” said Hensley. “In general, there is not enough communication between the College and the administration. I know the boycott is being seen. But I think it might come down to us going directly to the administration and having that conversation with them.”

Raimondo also feels there is an issue with communication.

“I am saddened that so many students still do not understand why the meal plans are constructed as they are, which means that Student Life needs to find more effective ways to help educate the community,” wrote Raimondo. “I continue to wish that students who are concerned with dining would engage with Student Senate’s dining working group or the CDS dining committee, which offer significant opportunities for student leadership in improving campus dining. I always hope that protest, which is an important strategy for institutional change, comes after other forms of direct engagement, not as the first form.”

The food donation boxes will be open until Saturday, April 13.