Oberlin’s Dining Services Letting Down Students

It’s no secret that over the past few years, the quality of Oberlin’s dining services has been consistently declining. I’m a fourth-year, and every year that I’ve been on this campus, meal plans have become more and more overpriced while the food quality has worsened. This semester, the situation has reached a breaking point.

The poor nutritional quality of our meals makes it difficult for all students to maintain healthy eating habits. At DeCafé and the Rathskeller, meals tend to be 400–600 calories per meal swipe, in addition to a side. Recommended calorie intake varies based on factors such as age, weight, height, lifestyle, and overall health, but, regardless, the recommended daily calorie intakes in the US are around 2,500 for men and 2,000 for women. So, even after getting three full meals from either of these locations, most students would still fall short of their recommended daily intake. It is even worse for people who are more physically active; for many athletes, the daily requirement just to maintain muscle mass is at least 2,500–3,000 calories.

Even if you do manage to get the requisite number of calories, healthy options that actually satisfy students’ hunger are so limited that most of the calories consumed come from unhealthy foods.

“Especially late at night, the most substance you can get is from the Rat, which is such greasy food,” said College third-year and track and field athlete Emma Hart. “I’m never energized with the food that I eat from there.”

Combined with the lack of sustainable food options, the excess costs of the meal plans this year are forcing some students to go without food entirely. Depending on their plan, students are expected to pay $10.30–24.00 per meal swipe. However, after reviewing the AVI Foodsystems menus at all dining locations, I estimated that the cost of ingredients for these meals is substantially below their listed prices. I would assume the remainder of meal plan payments goes into wages and capital expenses, which makes sense — what doesn’t make sense is charging extra Flex Points for meals. One meal swipe should be able to cover a full meal since we already pay so much per swipe. There is absolutely no explanation for why the school is charging additional Flex Points — other than a blatant prioritization of profits.

In addition to overcharging on meal swipes, students have also complained about overpriced grocery options in DeCafé. College second-year Maya Yin Fahrer, who started a petition to raise awareness about the shortcomings of our dining services, was shocked when she first saw the inflated prices.

“People were talking a lot about how grocery items are four times the amount that they would be in a grocery store,” she said. “I didn’t even know that until recently, but after hearing about it, I went down and looked, and a cup of ramen, which is like … 50 cents [in a grocery store], is $5 [in DeCafé]. It’s insane.”

For low-income students, this could be detrimental.

“Seeing the people who have health issues or people who are low-income students saying, ‘I haven’t eaten in three days’ — it’s eye-opening,” Yin Fahrer said. “When people say that to you, I think it’s much harder to ignore.”

Oberlin is compromising accessibility for an entire demographic of students, which is directly at odds with the school’s intended mission.

As if high costs weren’t enough, long wait times for food are making the meal plan even less accessible. From personal experience, I’ve found that the wait during mealtimes at most dining locations is approximately 15–45 minutes.

“At most dining locations, you have to wait an astronomical amount of time to get your food,” Hart said. “The workers are doing their best, but there is just not enough being done to cover the understaffing issues.”

For students who are working through hectic, fast-paced daily schedules, spending the better part of an hour waiting for a flavorless chicken bowl is simply not a reasonable option. Yet, AVI appears to be so understaffed right now that this seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Solutions to this problem have been introduced, but it is still not enough. AVI previously required student workers to work a minimum of 12 hours per week, an arbitrary policy that did not exist when Bon Appétit Management Company ran dining services. That policy has since been reduced to four hours per week. While this is a significant improvement, most students at Oberlin simply do not have the time to work this many hours. It is extremely difficult for students to work this much while balancing classes on top of clubs and extracurricular activities.

Yin Fahrer says that things ran much more smoothly when Bon Appétit ran dining services.

“There were four or five students working per hour, and people were picking up the slack left and right,” Yin Fahrer said. “I think reducing the hour requirement would fix a lot.”

While the wait times are a significant inconvenience for all students, the way AVI manages student workers is creating further consequences for low-income students. Because AVI is a private, non-unionized company, campus dining jobs are no longer considered a part of the Community-Based Work-Study Program. This program is meant to give students requiring financial aid the opportunity to work on-campus jobs with flexible hours to help pay their tuition. Because dining services are no longer a part of this program, there is a shortage of CBWSP jobs on campus.

“The people who work on campus here usually are the people who need money, and they fill their needs by working for them,” Yin Fahrer. “Because of this, [low-income students] can’t work for campus dining services, which previously has been a place where most kids got their work-study.”

If these policies were changed, AVI could tap into a plethora of willing, capable workers that could help improve wait times while making on-campus jobs more viable for low-income students.

Though AVI claims that our complaints and suggestions are being heard, it is clear that nothing will substantially change unless more students speak up about this issue. Oberlin’s administration may be actively choosing profits over the well-being of the student body, but it doesn’t have to be this way. For those involved in running Oberlin’s dining services, I implore you to consider some of the changes mentioned in this article, in addition to suggestions from students. There is no doubt in my mind that campus dining can be made more accessible for everyone.