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GW completes dining system revamp as students flood all-you-can eat dining halls

Sage Russell | Photographer
The Shenkman dining hall.

Inside the newly opened dining hall in Shenkman Hall, signs of a new dining experience are clear.

Students stream down the stairs to the building’s basement and move from station to station picking up hot food like chicken wings, burgers and pasta before sitting down at tables or in an armchair. Upstairs, they visit the Shenkman Market and purchase an açaí bowl or drink before heading to class.

“I do think that it creates a nice environment for people, like the seating,” Aaliyah Holland, a sophomore majoring in economics and statistics, said. “It’s very nice, so I think that that could have a positive impact.”

GW completed the overhaul of its dining system last week, launching a series of swipe-based meal plans for students to use at a trio of dining halls, the product of years of students’ advocacy for officials to respond to food insecurity on campus. The opening of Shenkman’s dining hall earlier this month signaled the fulfillment of GW’s dining transformation – a plan to provide students with meal swipes at traditional buffet-style dining halls instead of limiting them to funds that local restaurants registered as GWorld vendors would accept.

Students will purchase food around campus this spring under one of six meal plans, which include smaller dining dollar budgets than previous dining plans and varying levels of meal swipes they can use at all-you-can-eat facilities in West, Thurston and Shenkman halls.

They can choose between three unlimited plans, which are open to residential students and offer unlimited meal swipes and various increments of dining dollars, three “block” plans – which provide limited meal swipes and more dining dollars than the unlimited plans for nonfreshmen – and legacy plans, which are exclusively comprised of dining dollars and limited to juniors, seniors and commuter students.

Douglas Frazier, the executive director of GW Dining, said officials required freshmen to register for one of the unlimited dining plans because the University wanted to ensure students can dine whenever they want instead of worrying about a declining number of remaining swipes. He declined to share the number of students registered for each plan or the number of students who requested to change their dining plan.

“Navigating the first few years of college can be extremely difficult, challenging and frustrating,” Frazier said in an email. “Our intent is to make the transition as smooth as possible and ensure students have the best experience possible as they assimilate into life away from home.”

The University announced plans to revamp GW’s dining system with a reimagined, swipe-based dining system that would launch in fall 2022 with four all-you-can-eat dining halls located in four buildings – West, Thurston and Shenkman halls and District House.

In June, officials reversed their plans to convert the District House basement to a traditional dining hall, opting for a lineup of new GWorld vendors that would replace student favorites like Kin’s Sushi, Sol Mexican Grill and Chick-fil-A, which will relocate to the University Student Center this summer. A month later, they said “supply chain issues” would delay the inception of Thurston and Shenkman dining halls to mid-September and the spring, respectively.

As a result of the delays, officials chose to maintain the dining dollar program for all students through the fall until switching in the spring semester to the new swipe-based plans that students registered for over the summer before the August delay. Students can request to make changes to their spring 2023 meal plan until Jan. 27.

More than 30 students are split on GW’s transition to the new dining system – some welcome the shift as the start of a new era of affordable dining, while others cite limited dining hall hours and fewer dining dollars that they can spend at local grocery stores as signs of continued obstacles to affordable meals on campus.

Sixteen students said the induction of dining halls has allowed students to conserve money and not skip out on meals, opting for reliable dining facility food rather than sporadically eating homemade meals or at GWorld vendors in Western Market. But students said they have struggled to make it to the dining halls during their respective designated dining periods while busy with school.

Shenkman and Thurston halls serve breakfast from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 4:30 to 9 p.m. on weekdays. The dining halls are open for brunch and dinner on the weekend from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m., respectively, according to the GW Dining website.

Pierce Kaputska, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering who signed up for the block plan with 175 swipes and $400 dining dollars, said he is less concerned about food budgeting after GW’s transition to a dining hall-centric system because the plan offers a flat fee for all-you-can-eat meals.

Officials charge students a $10 flat fee for breakfast, $12 for lunch and $15 for dinner at dining halls in Thurston, Shenkman and West halls. In previous years, dining dollar plans totaled $1,670 per semester, but with exception of the legacy plan, the most affordable block or unlimited dining plans with meal swipes cost more than $2,000 this semester.

“We used to be able to just go out to eat all the time, which sounds fun ideally, but it ended up being divvied up to you having $13 a day, and that’s kind of one meal to go out on,” he said. “So this is nice, being able to just not think about it.”

Kaputska said in previous years, students often ran out of GWorld funds during the semester, resorting to their personal money to eat.

“Instead of getting the freshman 15, where everyone gains weight, everyone would lose weight,” Kaputska said. “We call it the freshman negative 15. You’re scrapping for food.”

In 2016, officials closed J Street in the University Student Center, GW’s only dining hall on the Foggy Bottom Campus and adopted an open dining format where students could use their dining dollars to purchase food at GWorld vendors including restaurants and grocery stores.

Two years later, a Wisconsin HOPE Lab study found nearly 40 percent of students experience food insecurity. In another report that year, three student researchers attributed the dining insecurity in part to the dining dollar meal plans because of budgeting difficulties that made students struggle to maintain a full diet.

Aiden Suski, a junior majoring in international affairs who signed up for the block plan, said the shift to meal swipes will push him to eat more regularly because dining halls don’t require food prep or shopping. He said before the new system’s implementation last semester, the frequency and timing of his meals throughout the day were “all over the place.”

“I think that having a place where I can actually sit down and do work while I’m eating and not have to worry about cooking or going shopping or going to a restaurant will definitely help my eating schedule,” Suski said.

Syed Fatmi, a junior majoring in economics and political science, said he requested to stay on the legacy plan instead of converting to a plan with funds allocated for meal swipes because cooking meals in his dorm or ordering food via Grubhub was more “convenient” than going to dining halls. He said he only visited the dining halls once or twice last semester, citing his lack of time during the days to dine.

“Let’s be honest, most college students do not have the time to spend like 45 minutes and $15 worth of your time just to go and sit down and eat,” Fatmi said.

Shea Carlberg contributed reporting.

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