by Julia Knoerr ’21
With the economic downturn intensifying, researchers anticipate COVID-19 will produce the greatest crisis in food security since the 2008 recession. For many college students, the transition away from campus to remote learning has brought new norms for sourcing meals. For students who remain on Davidson’s campus, institutional food provision continues to serve as the primary resource to meet their needs.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as the “lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active life.” Yara Quezada ‘21 believes food insecurity has taken on a new meaning. While “access” often indicates financial means, time, and proximity to food sources, the COVID-19 pandemic raises new constraints surrounding supply-chain quantities, increased health risks to grocery shopping, and reduced availability of food delivery services.
On campus, Dining Services continues to serve the students who stayed at Davidson following the transition to online instruction. Pinky Varghees, Director of Dining Services, explained recent adjustments to ensure students have the amount of food they need while complying with stricter health regulations. “Because we want students to stay close to campus to reduce risk of exposure, every student with an active meal plan — whether they live on campus or off — can get take-out food from Commons. They can take as many meals as they need regardless of their meal plan,” Varghees shared in an emailed response.
Traditionally, the college requires all students to select a pre-paid meal plan, ranging from 75 swipes per semester to 21 swipes per week, for use at Vail Commons, Davis Cafe, or Wildcat Den. However, new guidelines under COVID-19 have transformed meal services, allowing students to swipe in an unlimited number of times regardless of their meal plan.
An email on March 18th from Byron McCrae, Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students, and Ann McCorvey, Vice President for Finance and Administration and CFO, outlined new instructions for dining on campus. Beginning March 19th, Vail Commons closed its dining rooms to begin serving all food as take-out meals, with breakfast pick-up from 7:30 to 9 a.m., lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and dinner from 5 to 6 p.m. Each meal includes a vegan option and a made-without-gluten option.
Unlike many grocery stores and food delivery services, Dining Services has not experienced supply-chain issues thus far. Though serving a fraction of their normal offerings, chefs continue to prepare “fresh and nutritionally balanced meals” adjusted to student feedback, according to Varghese.
Sarah Woods ‘21, who lives off campus and relies on Commons for at least one meal per day, believes meals have been successful overall, though she noted limitations.
“I think it’s a good thing that they’re open, and [for] students who can’t necessarily go to the grocery store or who feel uncomfortable doing so, they are always going to have food. Even though it’s not necessarily what they want, it’ll be an option,” Woods said. Beyond students, all team members on duty also receive meals, according to Varghese.
Despite generally positive feedback, organizational changes, such as the daily hours and reliable menu dispersal, have proven somewhat inhibiting. Woods elaborated, “I do wish they had extended hours, at least for dinner, because it’s kind of tough, especially [because] I’m working still, so sometimes I don’t get done until 6:30, and dinner is from 5 to 6, so [if I didn’t cook], that’s the the meal I wouldn’t get something to eat.”
Quezada also noted that some students she knows living off campus mentioned they were “uncomfortable going to Commons even though Commons was taking all of the precautions,” instead choosing to buy large quantities of groceries at a time to cook with apartment mates and avoid leaving home. Large shopping trips require access to more money at one time, as does purchasing food from local restaurants. However, students with dietary restrictions such as veganism have found the options at Commons particularly limiting, making cooking a necessity.
Maddy Wolfenbarger ‘22 appreciates Varghese’s determination to work with her, but she has found that generally “the meals they provide for vegans are high carbohydrate and low on healthy fats and/or protein,” so she does not often feel full. Breakfast options are especially limited, so she often finds herself cooking. “This is difficult because, due to my scholarship package, I would not be getting refunded for my meal plan. So, money for home cooked meals is coming from my bank account,” Wolfenbarger said.
The question of food insecurity ties directly to the college’s steps to refund students’ room and board costs. Quezada observed that some students likely assumed they could use refunded money to help their families pay for groceries, as many individuals currently face lay-offs and financial burden. However, an email from the Student Government Association (SGA) on April 1st clarified that the college could not legally issue refunds to students receiving scholarships.
“A lot of people who are more vulnerable to food insecurity are on scholarships […] it’s just not the time to abandon your most vulnerable students,” Quezada said. In response, SGA President Brandon Harris ‘22 and Vice President Oğuzhan Çölkesen ‘22 included links to a spreadsheet with alumni resources and a survey for students experiencing financial difficulty in hopes of easing their burden. Varghese urged students struggling to access food on campus to contact the Dean of Students Office.