Just as the Yale Library calls itself the heart of the University, the dining hall is arguably the heart of life in our residential colleges. Besides spending most of our meals at a dining hall, many Yale undergraduates spend a lot of time talking about dining halls. From commendations, to comparisons, to complaints, we make nearly as much noise about the dining hall experience as when we’re trading gossip or stories over one of our three daily meals. Some of the best conversations we’ll have at Yale will be in the these dining halls. Lifelong friendships are forged within these twelve buildings (plus Commons). And I would even posit that some of the best food you’ll have is continually served in these halls. The company, the friendship and the food — all of this is yours with just a swipe. I know this is a controversial point. Just look at past opinion columns that have critiqued the dining halls in no uncertain terms.
But is the swipe misleading? People have pointed out that the price of the meal plan means that we spend $30 every day for our dining halls. But it doesn’t feel like $30 when you’re just swiping thrice a day. Your wallet doesn’t empty nor does your bank account dwindle. For many, these meals are paid for at the start of the term along with tuition fees by parents, financial aid or a scholarship. But it is $30 worth of food a day. In other words, we’re spending $210 a week. According to Gallup, the average American spent $151 per week on food in 2012. Those who earn more than $75,000 a year spent about $180 a week on food. So, a Yale student on a meal plan spends more money on food than a typical high-wage earner.
Why? Because most people living in the United States don’t have all-you-can-eat buffets three meals a day, seven days a week. A typical New Haven resident does not have a spread of three pizzas, pot roast, gnocchi, jasmine rice and vegan tofu coupled with a salad bar, desert, cereal, sodas and four types of milk for dinner. So my question is this: While dining halls are great, do we really need to eat so well?
The problem with the swipe is that it masks the extraordinary cost of the food we get in a dining hall. It makes having a great meal something convenient and normal. We take it for granted that every day, we can go to 13 different locations on campus and have this extraordinary diversity of foods at our fingertips. Will we leave Yale, having dined on fairly expensive food every day, expecting choice foods as part of our lifestyle? Are we being habituated into a cushy and comfortable lifestyle that most but not all of us will be able to afford and none of us need?
Or more fundamentally, should eating so well be a central aspect of a Yale education? Does a Yale education entail living for four years in castles and eating food most Americans can’t afford? Should donors pay for financial aid that goes into subsidizing expensive meal plans so that students can enjoy buffet spreads every meal of their four years at Yale?
Dining halls are great places but it seems hard for me to accept that the sumptuous, terribly expensive meals I have in them are anywhere near as important a part of my Yale education as my well-salaried professors, my well-resourced libraries and my well-funded academic and extra-curricular programs.
If anything, I wonder if these great meals I’m having make me less able to appreciate what life is like for most people in this country. I wonder if I am less able to empathize with the hungry. I wonder if I am, as a result of my amazing dining hall experiences, less able to appreciate a simple, inexpensive meal with a friend after I graduate.
I’m not saying that we should get rid of dining halls, or that the meal plan should be eliminated. All I’m saying is that we can be a lot more conscious of what we are actually enjoying, how much it costs and give some thought to how we could be happy with much less. I don’t see dining halls changing their operations or costs anytime soon. But at least, we can be conscious, critical and concerned consumers. Next time you step into a dining hall, all I ask is that you think about the luxuries at our disposal and whether we can do without them. I think we can.
Mitchell Tan is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.