Ross Hickman ‘22 and Lyra Seaborn ‘22
Ten years ago, Steph Curry and friends declared their dining spot of choice with the smash YouTube bop, “I Love Commons.” However, there’s no denying that the Davis Café—simply referred to by students as Union—has an equally loyal fan base. Every day, swarms of hungry students convene on the establishment for offerings like sandwiches, pizza, and sushi.
New this year is the selection of snacks—including dried fruit, Rx protein bars, and flavored nuts—that are arrayed behind the case of baked goods. These items are overall more nutritious than the other side options, yet, according to an online survey we conducted and distributed among the student body last week, 78.8% of the 104 responders feel that these goods are not accessible. Chiefly cited was the fact that most are not covered by meal swipes and are too expensive to warrant dipping into a limited supply of dining dollars.
“We overpay for our meal plans anyways. [T]he least they could do is let us use it on stuff we actually enjoy and that is healthy for us,” said Alex Sizemore ‘20.
Many other students expressed confusion over the designation of certain options as meal plan versus dining dollars. Indeed, the classification can seem odd: one may purchase five containers of cereal or several pieces of fruit on a single meal swipe, but to get two protein bars leaves no choice but to spend dining dollars.
“Cereal is not something that we sell that much of, so you can fill up your meal plan with cereal if you want to. But we do limit other things because [otherwise] we would never be able to keep enough in stock for everyone to have some,” explained Mark Lewis, the Director of Cash Operations.
Plus, pre-packaged items like protein bars are very expensive.
“If we were to get enough of a margin to include those in our meal plan, they would be $2 more,” Lewis estimated.
However, meal plan designation isn’t merely constrained by financial factors. Davis Café also considers whether or not an item or combination of items fits the administration’s definition of a suitable meal. That is, whether or not it includes protein, carbs, and fat and could conceivably sustain a hardworking student through a class period or two.
“We try to limit it so that you have all those basic nutrients,” said Michael Wilson, the Davis Café Manager. “Protein bars and stuff like that… [are] a quick fix, but not a meal.”
It should be noted that items with red labels are on meal plan while ones with black labels are not, something several survey respondents were unaware of.
“The new labeling system for meal plan items was communicated to first years, but not upperclassmen… I only know because I was an [orientation team member] and overheard someone say it,” wrote one anonymous senior.
In addition to concerns about the price of exclusively dining-dollar goods, students pointed out the scarcity of selections that satisfy various dietary restrictions. The Davis Café offers gluten-free wraps, but the veggie burgers contain bread crumbs; most of the meal offerings include cheese, eggs, and/or meat. As pescatarians and part-time vegans, the authors of this article agree that Union dining can quickly become repetitive. There are only so many sushi rolls, sweet potatoes, and hummus sandwiches one can take before opting for the variety of the Commons salad bar.
Until this semester, the fabled Union Station—which was entirely dedicated to the airstream cooler, snacks, and other grab-and-go items—catered to a much wider variety of dietary needs. When it closed, the reduction in space forced most of those options out.
“A lot of the [vegan, gluten free, etc. options] we’d have to buy in bulk, so we had to have space to store it and space to sell it,” explained Wilson, who formerly managed Union Station. The Davis Café simply isn’t big enough to fill the void Union Station left. (Neither Lewis, Wilson, nor the current Director of Dining Services know why Union Station was shut down.)
The administration is aware of many of these criticisms, and in a few weeks a napkin suggestion board, like the one currently in Commons, will be installed outside of the Davis Café.
“I’ll always have an open-door policy that if you can come with an idea, I’ll do some research on it, [and] if it’s something that is marketable that we can put up here at a reasonable price, then we can provide it,” said Wilson.
One thing that probably won’t change, though: the hour restrictions on first-year meal plans. Unfortunately, the Davis Café simply can’t handle the volume; if first-years were able to use meal swipes during every meal period, ticket times could exceed 40 minutes during peak hours. Gluten-free pretzels and more vegan protein, though, could very well be put on the table.