The past two weeks have been enlightening for me and my stomach. With reduced dining hall activity during Hurricane Sandy and none over the Election Day break, I was forced to fend for myself. While I had initially worried about obtaining an adequate amount of sustenance, my stomach’s worries were easily assuaged, and I found that I rather enjoyed the experience. Looking back, the meal plan now seems a hindrance, unnecessary to the extent that it is mandated for first-years.
Previously, I had only been ambitious enough to amble across Broadway and buy a box of cereal from Morton Williams. On a bold day, I might even have taken the intrepid journey to Westside to purvey their excellent cheese selection. These humble rations, though, kept me sufficiently stocked.
After all, I am not a picky eater and am satisfied, if not pleased, with much of the food offered in the dining halls. The variety of food and dining halls themselves makes the meal plan very easy to live with. However, there is the obligation of payment. Nearly $5,000 paid over a year is no small amount, which compels me—and most students, I think—to avoid wasting meals and get the full value of our payment. There is, therefore, an impetus to eat at the dining halls—and at the dining halls alone. Rather than spend valuable green bits of paper elsewhere, I should rely upon food that I had already paid for, right? It does seem like the sensible course of action.
Yet with Ferris Booth out of commission during the hurricane and all dining halls closed over fall break, I had no choice in the matter. But I was surprised that I liked the experience of eating without dining halls. In the past two weeks, I freely explored more restaurants and more of the city than I had in the past two months cooped up in Ferris and John Jay. Furthermore, I did so at the same, if not lower, price than my meal plan would normally cost.
Of course, I wasn’t always able to go out on a majestic adventure and wind up at an inexpensive, delicious place with just the type of food that I was craving. In those instances I had a much better and more satisfying alternative—I cooked.
After stocking up on several pounds of rations, friends and I settled in to wait out the storm (and Election Day weekend). Over the course of the break, we gathered together, making and sharing food at least once a day. One particular morning, I stumbled into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, and stood in shock. There’s nothing quite like waking up to food, but my real enjoyment of the moment was grounded in the community and collaborative effort put into making it.
On their website, Columbia’s dining services refer to the first-year plan as “specifically designed to encourage community-building among new undergraduate students.” And they’re right—it can help. Often, I’ll round up a bunch of friends or serendipitously find some already in the dining hall to eat with. But that’s not always the case, and Columbia’s dining services don’t have a monopoly on community-building among first-years. Eating alone happens, and there is no proof that the dining halls do more to help build community than other options. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true.
When going out to eat, students often feel that it’s an experience, and thus something they want to share with others, not just a mission to forage for food. When cooking, it is often a joint enterprise of loaned pans, borrowed spices, and communal sharing. During my stint as a hunter-gatherer, I ate healthier, was exposed to more, and made more friends than I would have otherwise.
While I think that the dining halls are an integral part of campus and that the meal plan can be exceptionally useful, the imposition of such a substantial meal plan on first-years is inconvenient, especially when they have no say in the matter. Perhaps the truth may be difficult to digest, but forcing first-years to participate to such an extent is not particularly useful, and may even be detrimental.
The author is a Columbia College first-year and a Spectator associate editorial page editor.
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