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Officials give $200 boost to student dining budget amid affordability concerns

Olivia Anderson | Photo Editor
The new dining system introduced “meal deals” at various dining areas last semester. Officials plan to recruit new vendors to the meal deals this summer and increase the number of meal deal participants.

Updated: May 15, 2017 at 2:37 p.m.

One year into a new campus dining plan, officials are bumping up the amount of money on-campus students are able to spend on food.

Officials are giving all students living on campus an extra $200 in dining dollars – which students use to pay for meals on a GWorld card – next school year and plan to expand discounted meal options this summer. The move comes after some students said the meal plan did not provide enough funding to afford the high cost of eating in the District, leaving both their stomachs and wallets empty.

Next academic year, freshmen will be allotted $4,100 in dining dollars, sophomores will receive $2,700, juniors will get $2,200 and seniors will have $1,200, according to the dining website.

Last year, officials implemented an “open” dining plan, allowing students to spend all their meal money at vendors and grocery stores across campus, a project that student leaders pushed for years. Officials shut down J Street – formerly the main dining hall on the Foggy Bottom Campus – as part of the move to a new dining system.

“Students have consistently and clearly voiced their support for GW’s conversion to an open dining system.”

The space in the Marvin Center where J Street once stood is undergoing renovations, leaving Pelham Commons, located in West Hall on the Mount Vernon Campus, as the only option for an on-campus dining hall.

The multi-year renovation of the Marvin Center’s first floor will continue this summer and transform what used to be J Street into a new student space, which will also include a new retail vendor. Officials announced Monday that Panera Bread will open in the Marvin Center at a date to be announced this summer.

A focus on affordability
University spokesperson Brett Zongker said as more retailers, like Whole Foods, opened near campus in recent years, student interest in a traditional dining hall – like J Street – waned.

“Students have consistently and clearly voiced their support for GW’s conversion to an open dining system,” he said.

The University added five new restaurants to the basement of District House this year, but the new vendors faced months of delays before gradually opening since December.

Zongker said officials created meal deals – discounted meal combinations – last semester in response to student concerns about dining affordability.

The meal deals offer students three opportunities to combine individual menu items and save money at 23 participating vendors: a $6 breakfast, $8 dollar lunch and $10 dinner.

He said officials plan to recruit new vendors this summer to the meal deals and increase the number of meal deal participants.

Zongker said officials have heard from Student Association and Residence Hall Association leaders that dining affordability is a major concern for students. He said the meal deals provide affordable meals and encourage students to eat at on-campus vendors.

“We have received a highly positive response from both students, who have expressed appreciation for having this as another option available to enhance affordability, and participating GW Dining Partners,” he said.

Former SA Executive Vice President Thomas Falcigno said the SA worked with officials this year to expand meal deals to new District House vendors and other dining options around campus.

“I think that is helping make food on campus more affordable, but there’s still a lot more work that we need to do to ensure that students have enough money to purchase food, to eat and to be successful, because if you’re hungry you’re not going to be successful in college,” he said.

Mixed reviews
In interviews with several vendors, most said that students are not taking advantage of the meal deals, and are instead paying the normal, more expensive prices for meals.

Sonny Kim, the manager of Gallery Cafe in Shenkman Hall, said the cafe already offered the discounts included in the meal deals before officials asked the vendor to participate in the program. He said most students are unaware the discounts are an option.

“The food swipe system can solve some basic needs for food insecurity.”

“If someone ordered the dinner menu, I always tell them we have a meal deal, $10, with fries and a drink and all that,” Kim said. “I have to explain it to them.”

He said about 50 people use the breakfast meal deal – which offers free coffee – each day, but only about two or three students use the lunch option and the dinner discount is almost never used.

Helen Choi, the manager of Gallery Market in Shenkman Hall, said that the store is opting out of the meal deal program next school year because no one used it.

Managers of Sol Mexican Grill and Wiseguy Pizza – two District House vendors – said offering meal deals has increased sales at their restaurants.

Student backlash
More than 20 students have called on the University through a petition to switch its dining plan to a more traditional swipe system, charging that the amount of money students have to spend on food is not enough to eat at vendors and restaurants in the District.

Junior Augustine Zhou and three other students started a petition two weeks ago, which had 24 signatures as of Sunday, to reinstate a dining hall on the Foggy Bottom campus.

The system proposed in the petition would differ from J Street because the card would allow a certain amount of swipes into a dining hall where students could eat as much as they wanted. At J Street, students paid for each food item.

“It is truly impossible to keep under the budget unless you eat the same terrible Subway sandwich every day.”

“The food swipe system can solve some basic needs for food insecurity,” Zhou said.

Food insecurity has increasingly become a topic of conversation at campuses across the country and last fall, GW launched a student-led food pantry that more than 550 students now use. Officials who run the pantry have said it was not created in response to the meal plan.

Zhou said the petition aims to attract 1,000 signatures and he plans to bring the proposal to Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski.

In the past, freshmen were required to spend $1,400 of their $2,300 yearly dining dollars at J Street or Pelham Commons. This year, students can spend their dining plan allotments at any GWorld vendor with no requirements. Upperclassmen were given the choice to “opt-up” to a more expensive dining plan last semester.

Matt Goldstein, a freshman who ran out of GWorld with three weeks left in his second semester, said students should have some dining money to spend around the city but that a dining hall is needed to lessen the cost of food for students.

“It is truly impossible to keep under the budget unless you eat the same terrible Subway sandwich every day,” Goldstein said.

Shruti Ratnaparki and Meredith Roaten contributed reporting.

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