It's Time to Let Go of Val
Issue   |   Wed, 03/26/2014 - 00:51

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.

Class of '11 (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 17:00

"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."

Sunk cost fallacy, much?

'13 grad (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 05:42

Like the typical amherst econ major, you missed the point and did nothing but speak like a prick in specialized language that expresses nothing but class power. Sunk costs are a fallacy for the upper class alone, for whom an infinite safety net exists that encourages reckless risktaking at the expense of poor people

Another Econ Major (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 17:10

This is nonsense. You have to pay the $6-7 per meal cost whether or not you choose to eat at Val. Thus, it is a sunk cost (a cost that is not affected by your decision) that should not affect your decision whether or not to eat at Val, rather than an opportunity cost (a cost that is affected by your decision). There is nothing inherently classist about the distinction between sunk costs and opportunity costs. They just happen to be two separate concepts and there difference is important in optimal choice theory (sunk costs do not matter when making optimal choices, opportunity costs do). It was the author who invoked the economic concept of opportunity costs. She happened to misunderstand the concept, and an Econ major decided to point out her error. No need to engage in ad hominem attacks.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/28/2014 - 02:40

classist economics are ad hominum attacks, thats the point.

Jessica '12 (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/28/2014 - 11:02

Her point is valid, despite the misunderstanding of economic principles. Whether it's a sunk cost or not, the cost of eating elsewhere is still a factor - that costs more money in addition to the sunk cost.

Maia M (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 19:32

1. I love this. As usual, you've expressed my thoughts more eloquently and succinctly than I ever could.
2. Just to add an example onto your last paragraph: I was recently at Big Y and the person in front of me, a UMass student, paid for $88 worth of groceries with his Off-Campus Meal Plan (OCMP) card. Not only is this card functional at Big Y, but it also works at various local restaurants. I just wanted to cite one concrete example of our peer institutions' systems that you reference. (:

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 21:29

but you do have the option to live independently (no one is forcing you to live on campus) and you do have the option to buy groceries and cook and live off the meal plan. it literally just sounds like you want to live off the meal plan. the only negative you present for abandoning the meal plan is "social isolation" and having to pay for meals at val when you choose to go there with a group. re: social isolation, what do you expect? you are 100% choosing to eat alone, or with whatever friends you'd want to join you off campus. in the latter situation, again: what do you expect? to go in for free? how is that a reasonable expectation? if you're not on the meal plan then you can choose to go to val regularly and also lose the seven-dollar "tax" (that's a loaded and inaccurate term used here) that pains you so much. you point out an easily solved problem and present no alternatives.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 15:43

You are falsely presenting a binary choice: either be on the meal plan or not, full stop. What Meghna is advocating for is a range of options between those two extremes; that is, she wants students to have the flexibility to choose to eat off campus on days when they do not wish to eat at Val or buy groceries and cook for themselves on occasions when they have time and would like to (presumably by making meal plan funds usable at restaurants in town or at local grocery stories). I think these are fairly reasonable suggestions.

Matt Randolph (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 22:02

I definitely relate to many of the points you raised. I've unfortunately napped from 4:30-8:30pm as well (accidentally oversleeping) and I paid for that with the "seven-dollar tax" that you mentioned as an aspect of our meal plan. Something that you didn't mention was "TYPOs." Interestingly, the college pays for us to take our professors out to dinner, so I guess that cancels out the meal lost at Val...but I'm still not satisfied. I'm also skeptical of the idea of always having to pay for a meal I missed. We should consider a more flexible model. Great article, Meghna!

2013 (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 22:39

If people have issues that are triggered by encountering specific other students or by feeling anxious in Val itself, is the meal plan the root cause of those issues? I feel like the social awkwardness you cite is an inevitable part of living on a small campus--personally, the small community is something I really loved about Amherst, and although I can appreciate why other personality types/experiences could make people averse to it, I think it is an intrinsic quality of a tiny/residential school.

Patrick (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/26/2014 - 23:04

One alternative- which I've seen work at other colleges- combines two of your own suggestions. First, allow meals to transfer to Schwemm's, similarly to Grab and Go. Give students the option to have three lunches/ dinners at Val, or to use the meal one time at Schwemm's. This will give students more choice in their meals as well as avoid some of the social situations you mentioned.

Additionally, expand the products Schwemm's offers. I'm not only talking about a wider range of made-at-request options, but the possibility of creating a mini grocery store at Val. Allow students to buy large bags of chips, milk, fruit, etc. from an on campus location. Once again, meals from Val can be transferred to the improved Schwemm's. Rather than eat at Val, students should have the option to buy $6-7 worth of goods from Schwemm's.

None of this is possible without a substantial investment in Schwemm's, and likely an entire redesign of its layout. Furthermore, Grab and Go should be relocated so that Schwemm's could be open for breakfast and lunch. However, all of this would still be cheaper than building an entire new dining hall or renovating Val entirely. This system works well at other colleges, and there's no reason it shouldn't work here.

Siraj Sindhu (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 00:08

Thanks for writing this, Meghna. I really agree with the "$7 tax" paragraph. However, I find it hard to agree with the statement that "it is undeniable" that Val "fails more than it succeeds" and that Val "has given more people anxiety and tension than it has the sense of family and unity".

I love Val. I think that we complain about social anxiety in Val a lot and that we also take for granted the social benefits of Val. I don't deny the problems with Val you outlined, but I think we ought to recognize and demonstrate our appreciation for the opportunity Val provides: to walk in at any meal time and find friends to sit with, eat with, converse with, laugh with, and share with.

Let's not forget about how much we love the big tables in the back or upstairs where we can sit with our teams after a long, exhausting practice; the small tables in the front room that get great natural light, which is wonderful for breakfast; the convenience of having such a variety of food options available all in one place; and so many other great things about Val.

I'd provide examples of alternative options in such a piece. One idea that I'm in favor of would allow us to augment what Val provides, instead of replacing Val. Why not give students money or vouchers to spend at local restaurants instead of eating at Val? We could close the dining hall temporarily, give students a change of pace and a much different food experience, and maybe even save money in the long run. Other schools already have similar program, and as you rightfully say, we ought to be looking into and adopting their good ideas.

Alumna (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 00:19

Thank you for this. It's something I thought about too much during my time at Amherst, but never quite put down into words. You've done so beautifully.
During my junior and senior years at Amherst, I ordered food from certain restaurants so often that the delivery guys knew me on sight. I would order food during meal hours - e.g. when Val was open, e.g. when my hallmates were away - and sneak down the back staircase of my dorm to avoid being seen by whoever was still in the building. I would rather spend upwards of $50 a week (how much I made that week, usually) than have to face the social nightmare of Val. "I haven't seen you in weeks!" friends would say.
"Haven't you been eating? I haven't even seen you at Val." I wouldn't go for days at a time. Some weeks I lived off bread and whatever snacks were on sale at CVS. It was still preferable to the mandatory socializing of eating in a claustrophobic space like Val, where I couldn't get food without running into four classmates, be forced to say hi to at least two, and have one or more insist I sit and tell them about my day. They're well-meaning people. It just didn't mean well for my mental health.
We need alternative options to Val, and not just grab and go (which sounds like an absolute nightmare I'll be honest). We need valid options for eating away from one centralized dining hall. Like more social living spaces with working kitchens/dining spaces. Or a points system, rather than all-encompassing meal plan - points to spend on meals when we choose, or on grocery/food items at a functioning campus store.
As you said, Val isn't bad. But it could be much better. Hope the College can shake off some inertia and refocus once more on becoming the best College it can be - not just in regards to dining, but toward student life in general.

'13 (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 02:06

i miss val already : (


Daniel Diner '14 (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 03:03

Always heartening to see another of your articles, criticizing the constraint of coercive communal systems and arguing for the free enterprise alternatives :)

Seriously though, I am very surprised to see you reduce the value of a Val meal to its dollar figure. The College doesn't maintain Val because it thinks Val necessarily offers its students the cheapest possible meal or the most conveniences. Rather, Val is kept around because it's seen as central to the kind of social atmosphere they/we are trying to encourage. I don't know how legitimate this mission is, but I do feel strongly that "there shouldn't be a seven-dollar tax on just wanting a choice" doesn't address it. As a previous commentator said, we do all have the option of opting out of the meal plan and entering the perhaps more convenient market of restaurants and stores for our meals. For students off the meal plan, Val is ridiculously cheap - I don't see cause for calling it social isolation. But if you think a liberalization of the Val system is the best route, then I think you really ought to only concentrate on the social argument behind it. That it may cause triggers and anxiety is a start.

On a side note, I suspect that the reason for our meal plan inflexibility may be largely that we're so small, and that a lot of the costs involved in college dining are fixed. That is to say, the cost of operating Val is definitely not just reducible to the aggregate sum of money that every user pays into it. People opting out of the meal plan or the College liberalizing the meal plan structure would definitely cost Val more money than it could save on preparing less food. We tend to forget that change usually comes at financial cost, and with tuition costs rising so frequently this would no doubt be a significant issue.

Alberto (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 08:19

Thank you for this. I've often wondered why there isn't a more flexible meal plan here. Not everyone wants to go to Val all the time, and those students shouldn't be penalized for missing a meal. I find people sneaking food out of Val on a regular basis, justifying it by saying that "they're getting their money's worth," which makes perfect sense, honestly. However, a student shouldn't be forced to sneak around to win back the 10 or 20 buck they lost by missing a few meals the other week.

And, yes, there is always getting off the plan, but that has its own problems. One, there aren't enough kitchens on this campus for many of the students who want to cook to be able to do so easily. Two, I think it would lead to an uptick in isolation, because there aren't a lot of places on campus to spend those extra dollars. Three, there's something to be said for being able to swipe a card and not think about the cost, which is to say that people are fond of convenience.

However, I think a lot of that could be addressed by having a similar system to UMASS, and having the specific dollar amount of our meal plans placed on our cards and having each swipe simply subtract the cost of the meal. It allows people to more freely direct their meal plan dollar to wherever they choose, while keep the money within the community (by which I mean Amherst town, not the college specifically), which I think Amherst would prefer.

I think that once that kind of flexibility was in place, it would be easier to bring in other smaller food vendors onto campus, who wouldn't have to worry about being brought under the yoke of Val. The social atmosphere would be more evenly spread across the different vendors, while still allowing people to are too busy to go out to simply buy groceries and eat in their rooms.

There would be problems, as there are at UMASS. Students over there regularly complain that the unused money on their account just evaporates at the end of the semester, because they're not allowed to take any of it back. But, that problem is easily solvable, and it's a problem caused by more students being conscious of where their money is going and how it's being used, which can never be a negative thing, in my opinion.

Jacob (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 11:11

Thanks Obama.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/27/2014 - 15:45

My main reservation is that I suspect that keeping meal plan funds internal to the college by forcing the funds to be spent on Val is used to subsidize low-income students.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/28/2014 - 14:43

"did nothing but speak like a prick in specialized language that expresses nothing but class power" -- lol, as if passing Econ 11 = "class power."