Centralized Dining: Jeopardizing Community or Adjusting to Modern Standards?
Monday, April 8th, 2013 at 12:15PM. It’s the first shorts and dresses day this spring at Mount Holyoke College. Students stroll out of their classes, squinting and shielding their eyes against the sun. Stomachs growl as the aroma of burgers and fries drifts through campus. Gaggles of students head toward one of the college’s seven dining facilities, but unfortunately, they beget similar disappointments—long lines, claustrophobic spaces, and limited food options. This is the current reality of Mount Holyoke Dining.
During every meal, students struggle to squeeze between crowds of students, dining services workers, and tables and chairs while complaining about how long it took to get to the front of the line in order to scoop food onto their plate. Finding seats alongside friends in the intimate dining spaces is no easy task. Dining Services has listened to students’ concerns and began a movement to manage and solve the dining issues on campus. Their solution—centralized dining.
Many students are still in the dark about what this proposition may mean for the future, mostly because The Centralized Dining Working Group, a committee comprised of five students, one alumna representative, and five administrators, is still in the early stages of discussion. The basic facts about this proposal are that the centralized dining facility would be constructed in the ‘lantern green’ behind Blanchard, possibly connecting to Blanchard with a bridge; it would have extended hours from early in the morning to late at night; and students would have unlimited swiping access, allowing them to enter as many times as they want and eat as much as they want. The possibility of centralized dining, however, has raised concerns in students who are not comforted by this possible change.
“I have been to colleges where there is centralized dining. It is effective but it would take away from the community feel of Mount Holyoke,” Ariana King ’15 said. “I like the fact that meal times are an intimate space.” Katy Bensen ’14, a concerned student who got wind of the proposal while studying abroad, agrees. “I’m very against one dining hall. I think the set up of the dining halls now creates an intimate dining space. Even though having specific time periods you can eat is sometimes frustrating, it makes it feel more like community to me. Second, it also creates a really strong community if you work [in the dining halls], which is amazing because the chefs are great people.” This is a major concern to alums according to the alumna representative on the committee, Linda O’Connell ’69. “There’s a strong contingent of alums appalled at the idea of anything other than family style in-dorm dining,” said O’Connell. “Because of the round tables, students often had to sit with people who weren’t their friends and conversations were incredibly inclusive.”
Many students share King’s, Bensen’s, and the alumnae concern, but student committee member Alli McDonough ’14 believes centralized dining will actually strengthen the community because everyone will be eating at the same facility; and therefore, there will be more opportunities to bump into friends. So when confronted with students’ concerns that centralized dining will take away from Mount Holyoke’s sense of community, McDonough said, “I’m inclined to disagree because you mostly run into people at Blanchard, not at dining halls.” Ben Hammond, committee member and Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer confirms that three students on the committee, McDonough, Karissa Pinto ’14, and Madeleine McNally ’16, talked with students at Bates and Bowdoin College, two small liberal arts schools with centralized dining, and those students believe that their dining facilities help create a “strong sense of community.”
Another worry is that the variety of options and the quality of food will decline if centralized dining is implemented. As of now, students can look at an online menu and decide what type of meal they would like that day and visit the dining hall that provides it. There are cooks and chefs that prepare the food fresh in front of students. “I think the food is better than it would be if we had the standard college set up,” Bensen argues. “It’s cooked almost to order, in smaller batches, and there’s so much choice each day with what you can get. I don’t think we’d be able to hold on to these things with one big campus dining hall.” First-year student Margaret Stanne disagrees since her diet choices prevent variety with the current system. “As a vegetarian, I like the idea of centralized dining. Today at lunch there were beans and bowtie pasta, and I didn’t want curry, yet again.” There are only a few vegetarian options in each dining hall, and even fewer vegan options. According to McDonough, centralized dining would combine all options. “Instead of four or five entrees offered at each meal, students would have access to 24 different entrees in one facility.” Dale Hennessey, Director of Dining Services, confirms that there would be both “self-service stations and made-to-order options” which guarantees that the food’s quality will not suffer. She adds that there will be more food options because there will be more space for it. “In the current dining facilities, we don’t have room for gluten-free stations, but it could be a possibility in centralized dining.” Students who are worried about kosher dining need not worry either. As of now, dining services plan on leaving Wilder open for that purpose.
Mount Holyoke has strong roots in tradition, but sometimes those traditions become outdated. Hennessey mentioned that “change is very difficult, but we need change to remain competitive.” Many students, however, were attracted to MHC’s decentralized dining experience because it is more intimate and feels homier. “Personally one of the things that drew me to MHC was the unique dining options, and I enjoy having a lot of food options on a daily basis,” said Aubrey Shoop ‘14. But McDonough isn’t worried about losing the uniqueness of Mount Holyoke because she believes that switching to centralized dining will “allow for a blend of Mount Holyoke traditions as well as a new shiny blend.”
Regardless of the positive or negative opinions about centralized dining, something has to be done. The last major dining change was ten years ago in 2003. Thirteen kitchens and 17 dining rooms were consolidated into the seven facilities that are in use today. Originally, students were forced to eat in their assigned residence hall, whereas now, students can eat anywhere they desire and switch it up for every meal. The menus and choices have since expanded—John Fortini, Associate Director of Dining Services remembers how students’ only option for Sunday night dinner was casserole, “which may or may not have been heated all the way through by a student worker.” These changes, however, are no longer sufficient. In 2003, there were approximately 1,850 students on campus, according to Hennessey and Fortini, but now, there are about 2,200 students who need to be accommodated. There are only 1,100 seats in all of the dining halls. In addition, Blanchard is feeding about 50% of students daily, a task for which it was never designed. Originally, Blanchard was built to be a cash operation, not on the meal plan, and only serve 300-350 people per meal. In reality, Blanchard serves anywhere from 800-1,000 diners per meal, and it only seats 170—about 15% of the total seating in all of the dining halls.
Hennessey and Fortini’s swipe counts also reveal that other dining halls, like Prospect often serve up to 350 students per meal, and on a busy day, Wilder can do the same. However, “since traffic is menu driven” according to Hennessey, swipe counts fluctuate. Abbey, for instance, can have as few as 90 students dine there, but on nights such as Arabic Gracious Dinner, there were 252 people who swiped in to eat, and not enough food. These variations encourage wasted food because chefs never know how much they will need at any given meal. Having one facility will greatly reduce waste since there will be a constant and consistent flow of students in one facility while also eliminating the redundancy of equipment, and reducing the use of electricity and the amount of gas needed to transport supplies. According to Hammond, preliminary estimates show that switching to centralized dining can save the college between $800,000 and $1 million annually. These savings would allow for dining services to provide unlimited swipes into the centralized dining facility—students can enter as many times as they want and eat as much as they want.
But many people are interested to know how much construction will initially cost before there will be any savings. The truth is, if centralized dining does not come to fruition, renovations and enhancements are still necessary due to the growth of the college and the age of facilities and equipment. At a centralized dining presentation at a Student Government Association Meeting in April, Hammond revealed that kitchen equipment has a life of about twenty years, and “much of our equipment is pushing that.” If equipment is only updated as it breaks or as required for new safety regulations, the college can spend between two and four million dollars over the next two to five years, and eventually, the whole dining system will still have to be reworked. If all of the dining facilities are renovated completely, which according to the committee’s PowerPoint presentation , would include expanding centrally located dining halls, closing all continental breakfast centers, and possibly changing Blanchard’s function within the board plan, it may cost anywhere from $15-$20 million, and it will be difficult to expand and do construction because of code requirements and working around the constraints of the facilities that already exist. In addition, dining halls will have to be closed during renovation, and possibly, the entire dorm in which the hall resides. This leads to more space issues not only during meal times, but also, for student housing. Building the centralized dining facility would cost about the same as renovations, but starting construction from scratch will be easier and much less constraining. “The sky is the limit!” Hennessey exclaimed during many moments in the interview.
Indeed, the sky may be the limit, but first, The Board of Trustees has to review the project and prioritize it against other projects on the “Master Plan” next fall. In addition, McDonough attests that the committee cares about the students’ thoughts. “I love working with The Centralized Dining Working Group because they all care about student opinion…we want students aware of the fact that we aren’t steamrolling ahead without them.” It may take three to five additional years to design and build after if/when they receive the green light, so most likely, no one currently enrolled in the institution will see centralized dining during their time here. That may be a relief to some who are wholeheartedly against the idea of centralized dining because they don’t want the community and the tradition to be jeopardized, while a disappointment to others who may have been excited to experience entering the dining hall as many times as they wish without extra cost, but then there are some who aren’t concerned one way or the other. One senior when asked to comment on her opinion of centralized dining said, “I won’t be here, so I really don’t care.”
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