This is a hard topic for me to write about, simply because too much ink has been spilled over it: it's hackneyed, it's cliched, it's what we all say to make conversation with each other when there's nothing to talk about. "So, how about that Val food, eh?" After four years here, we get it. Val's food has a stereotype of not being particularly gourmet. Val's been slowly and steadily improving. Val needs more vegetarian food. Val's trying. Give Val a break.
Why I want to bring up and discuss Val today, however, is because of two things: 1) a problem I have, not with the actual dining hall itself, but the very culture of one dining hall and a compulsory, all-encompassing meal plan, and 2) the larger problem of infantilization and social stratification that this represents about the college.
Valentine dining hall is not as bad as we make it out to be. There's a decent variety of food, it's always been on an upward trend to improvement, and the staff are some of the most lovely, cooperative, kind and helpful people at the College. We've all survived after four years of eating there. There's a decided lack of gluten free and vegetarian options, an issue that must be looked into, but overall—the problem is not the content of Val. It's the form.
There's an arguably decent rationale behind having one small dining hall: it fosters a sense of community, an idea that at the end of our busy day doing different things, we come home to have a family dinner. However, as we’ve all noticed—this backfires quite spectacularly at Val, which is one of the most socially segregated spaces on campus. Moreover, Val is often the subject of a host of awkward social situations—ranging from somewhat irritating (seeing a hookup from last night that you wanted to avoid) to outright triggering and harmful (seeing your sexual assaulter and his friends walk by you, an example outlined in It Happens Here magazine). The impulse to generate community and school spirit may be noble in some peoples’ eyes, but it is undeniable that if that is the purpose of Val, it fails more than it succeeds, and it has given more people anxiety and tension than it has the sense of family and unity.
The worst part about social awkwardness or outright triggering at Val, however, is the complete inescapability from it. We have two meal plan options: with breakfast or without breakfast, which solely concerns our life before 11 a.m. (something that doesn’t exist for many of us, including me). Essentially, however, if we live on campus, unless we have an exceptional excuse, we must eat at least two meals a day at Val, no exceptions. Considering we’re technically banned from taking food out of Val, this means that either we “suck it up” and deal with situations that can be extremely debilitating and disempowering for us—including the possibility of being triggered or getting anxiety attacks or feeling social isolation—or we risk complete isolation from the social scene at Amherst. There’s no in between—no “maybe I can skip Val just for today, my anxiety is too much/I don’t want to face people”—no option to choose between times you want to go and meet your friends and times where you want to stay in or not meet people or risk bumping into people you’d rather avoid.
Aha, I can hear you say—but, Meghna. Technically, nobody is forcing you to eat at Val. You’re right, interlocutor, nobody’s holding a gun to my head—but my rebuttal to that would be a basic point about capitalism (how is it always this?): how free are you to choose when you are materially constrained from doing so? In terms that the econ-majors would like, the opportunity cost of having a meal away from Val is 6-7$. We’ve already paid for a year’s worth of meals: skipping a meal at Val would be tossing away a plate of food we’ve spent good money on. For many of us, that’s just not an affordable option—and even if we can afford it, it still haunts us with the guilt of wastage and superfluous spending.
There shouldn’t be a seven-dollar tax on choosing to spend a night in at home recovering from your busy schedule and resuscitating your mental health. There shouldn’t be a seven-dollar tax on just not wanting to be in a particular busy social space. There shouldn’t be a seven-dollar tax on avoiding the possibility of triggering or panicking yourself. There shouldn’t be a seven-dollar tax on choosing to go out to dinner to celebrate a friend’s birthday. There shouldn’t be a seven dollar tax to want to bake on the weekends, or to try a new home cooked recipe, or to eat at a coffee shop while writing your essay, or because you napped from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., or because you want to order in a late pizza for dinner while you catch up on TV shows. There shouldn’t be a seven-dollar tax on choosing to treat yourself to a fancy meal at Moti’s to celebrate an achievement. There shouldn’t be a seven-dollar tax on just wanting a choice, a change, something different.
There shouldn’t be a choice, either, between that seven-dollar tax, and the social isolation that comes with abandoning the meal plan altogether, and not being able to enter Val for team and club dinners or group meetings or class get-togethers or the language tables, without paying.
The system is too constraining and infantilizing, and disadvantages in particular those who cannot afford to skip a meal they have already paid for, not to mention those who suffer from anxieties or triggers, or those who are vegetarian or gluten free. It also doesn’t achieve the end it purports to, and is a model widely ignored by our other peer institutions. It’s time to look into seriously reforming this system, because it’s crippling our independence and also our social happiness and community spirit. The best move to foster in us what Val aims to foster in us is to let lax on Val a bit—give us all a flexible meal plan with meals that can carry over, or be transferred off campus on days we chose to, or that can work at Schwemm’s at the very least. Give us the opportunity to live independently. Give those of us in dorms or houses with kitchens the chance to exert our independence and buy groceries and cook. Give us choices without caveats.
Our peer institutions have many alternative models, and it’s time we start seriously looking into them.