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The Carletonian

Let them eat Bon App: Carleton’s meal plan changes

The class of 2027 — this year’s freshmen — and every class after them will have to pay for a meal plan throughout all of their four years at Carleton. I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know this, since it was announced in a brief article in the May 25, 2023, edition of “Carleton Today.” This announcement was made before the class of 2027 got to campus, before they ate a single meal in the dining halls and before they learned what an interest house was. As a member of Culinary House, I am crestfallen that the newest class of Carls won’t have the same experience of communal living. Cooking together isn’t just a chore: I’ve built so many beautiful memories with my housemates over the three terms that I’ve lived in Culinary House, from learning to cook Egyptian cuisine to extinguishing a rapidly immolating bagel. Living in a house that the college owns and maintains is a privilege, not a right. I’m grateful for all the work the college, especially its maintenance staff, does to make our house a great place to live. But having established that precedent, shouldn’t Carleton continue to allow all students the choice to fully invest in a house community? 

The first reason the college cites for requiring a meal plan for all students, regardless of where they’re living, is “trends related to food insecurity among college students, as well as changes observed within our own campus community.” This argument is like a skyscraper made of Jell-O — it may look impressive, but poke it and it all comes wobbling down. How can Carleton cite food insecurity as a reason to institute new regulations when administration indefinitely suspended a CCCE initiative to deliver groceries from the Northfield Community Action Center Food Shelf directly to students experiencing food insecurity? This initiative would have done far more to feed the hungry on campus without requiring a humiliating trip to the Dean of Students’ Office to explain their situation to get emergency funding, as highlighted in a May 19, 2023 article in the Carletonian titled “New food access initiative for Carleton students indefinitely suspended: A closer look” by Lily Horne ’23 and Sophie Baggett ’23. Perhaps if Carleton administration saw someone begging for food on the street, they would turn around and say, “Why isn’t anyone making this man eat?”

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The announcement claims next that requiring all students to be on a meal plan “will make townhome and interest house living more accessible to students of all financial backgrounds.” The cheapest available plan is $175 for ten meals per term, meaning that each meal costs $17.50. Oddly, this is more expensive than simply paying for ten dinners in a term out-of-pocket with Schillers, which would be $147.50. Culinary House requires each resident to contribute to a food budget for the entire term, used for not only group dinners but individual breakfasts, lunches and snacks. This individual contribution is on a sliding scale from $375 to $475. Thus, requiring every student to be on a meal plan would actually make living in Culinary about 70% more expensive. Farm House has a similar system, but their sliding scale is based on the amount of financial aid a student receives, meaning that individual contributions can go from as low as $0 to as high as $800, with better-off students subsidizing their counterparts — a good example of students combating food insecurity on their own without sweeping regulations. While I don’t know other houses’ financial situations, I would imagine that the economics of buying food in bulk and serving house dinners multiple times a week make the situations fairly similar. Hardly reducing the burden on low-income students, Carleton’s plan would actually make living in a house less accessible to those with fewer resources by forcing them to not only contribute to their house’s grocery budget, but also to pay for a separate meal plan that they may not actually use. Multiple houses on campus also have specific dietary requirements that are not always well served by a one-size-fits-all meal plan, such as Page East,which maintains a totally kosher kitchen, and Page West, which maintains a halal kitchen and has many members who fast for Ramadan. 

So why has this change been implemented now? What numbers could have changed on Carleton’s spreadsheet to cause this change in policy? Word on the street says it’s an attempt from Bon Appétit to balance the old checkbook once more students move into the completed townhouses. The college nods to this possibility in their announcement, introducing the change “in conjunction with the opening of the first phase of new townhouses on campus in the fall of 2024.” There’s the rub. More students in townhouses = more students off the meal plan = less money for the dining halls and therefore Bon Appétit, who could pressure Carleton to maintain the same number of students on the meal plan regardless of their living situation. Definitive? No. Possible? Who knows?

I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have a personal stake in this. Living in Culinary House has enriched my life immeasurably, and I’m so glad that Carleton gave me the opportunity to live in a place where (not to get too Instagram) I wasn’t just surviving, but thriving. To be honest, I never liked the dining halls. When I didn’t have anyone to eat with, I was anxious that others would see me eating alone, but when I did have plans with friends, I could barely keep up a conversation due to the deafening roar around me. It was a relief to find a community that needed me at Culinary House, even if it was just to take out the trash for a week. Meals were no longer something to be put on your schedule and rushed through, but something to savor with a group of treasured friends and honored guests. I no longer felt the need to rush through my meal to get to that night’s readings, but rather lingered to hear more about how my housemates’ days went. For lack of a better word, I learned how to “adult”—how to cook for 12, unclog a drain, or deal with a squirrel in your house. Shouldn’t all members of the class of 2027 be offered the same opportunities?


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    Elizabeth McEntarfferOct 23, 2023 at 11:59 am

    Great thoughts Esme. We’re all so glad you got to experience the ‘real’ Carlton experience before it all goes awry.