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Students’ Thoughts on Meal Service

When students returned to campus this semester, they were met with unexpected news: Commons reopened indoor seating! Sitting at Commons, DK’s, and Java Joint with your friends, for hours on end is a longstanding staple of Beloit social life, but during the ’20–’21 school year, meal services were drastically limited. Commons was open only for prepackaged takeout, serving the same options for both lunch and dinner, the Hamiltons line had the same options all mod, excluding sporadic meal specials, and DK’s was only open for Grab ‘N’ Go. This, among other conditions such as virtual classes, made it difficult for students to connect organically with peers, especially for first-years. Additionally, the limited hours and lack of food variety provoked numerous complaints from students finding it challenging to eat enough with just what was provided.

Therefore, the expansion of Commons’ food options and hours, and the option to either dine-in or get one’s food to go has been welcomed by many students seeking connection and nourishment. However, it comes at a cost: the Hamiltons line only serves lunch and is only open on weekdays.

According to Café Bon Appétit (BA), the third meal option this semester (replacing DK’s) will be “Smart Markets”: vending machines that theoretically can accept flex. There will be both the Smart Market that already exists in the Powerhouse as well as one installed at some point in the former-DK’s area. However, historically, the vending machines have not been compatible with the meal plan and require real money rather than flex. Additionally, despite the Powerhouse Smart Market being listed as “open all day every day,” the Powerhouse has its own hours of operation that are not 24/7. 

A major part of the choice to limit meal services is a labor shortage in Bon Appétit. This is also evidenced in Commons switching back to using disposable containers due to inability to keep up with the number of dishes needing to be washed. According to an anonymous BA employee, in July, the company was down 30-some-odd employees. Job listings were posted in July and August in preparation for campus reopening in late August, but there was not enough time and the company was unable to gain enough staff for a smooth transition into an open campus. These hiring problems occur within the broader, nationwide picture, where—as COVID restrictions have eased up and businesses have reopened—there has been a growing labor shortage, particularly in low-paying jobs and exploitative places of employment. It’s no secret that Beloit tends to pay student workers minimum wage or close-to, and BA is not much better when it comes to its non-student employees. 

One can’t blame the employees on the floor of Commons and Hamiltons for the issues with how the dining locations have been running.  They are often understaffed, underpaid, and do genuinely care about students. However, there are a number of issues with what has been occurring. Since Commons is the primary location to obtain meals on campus and students are expected to be able to survive off their meal plans, there are massive rushes on Chapin Hall when classes get out. Lines stretch out the door, and it’s impossible to social distance. Aside from concerns about COVID-safety, food often runs out during these rush hours, and it can take a very long time to get through the line, making it challenging to eat between classes. This is made even worse by the fact that there is nowhere to get food on the academic side of campus, a fact that people didn’t know and couldn’t plan for when selecting classes prior to the semester.

Additionally, students are paying a lot of money for their meal plans, and it’s historically very difficult to get off the meal plan for anyone besides seniors living off campus. Assuming a student pays the entire amount listed on the BA website and stays on campus all semester including breaks (110 days total), they pay $19.62/day on the Blue Plan or $14.73/day on the Gold Plan. On its face, this is not an unreasonable cost, but if students are not using the majority of their meal plans and must regularly supplement their diet by either cooking on their own (time consuming and requires skill) or getting takeout (expensive), the cost of a meal plan can become an undue burden. This is particularly an issue for students with dietary restrictions. Some examples of issues regarding dietary restrictions are that the gluten-free fridge is no longer in use and that there is significantly less variety in vegetarian and vegan options in Commons than there were prior to the pandemic.

All the current issues with food service especially strike a nerve with Beloit’s upperclassmen. When Java Joint was closed without warning in favor of Hamiltons, the school cited their contract with Bon Appétit, saying they could only provide three meal options. Currently there are approximately one and a half meal options being offered. It’s clear that something is not adding up. If students are paying all this money for meal plans, what is it going to, if not food? Something definitely needs to change.

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