Student Government Pushes for Free Meals in Commons

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Bates has long provided its students with a tremendously unique dining program; the single dining hall setup allows students to connect in a centralized location, while unlimited swipes encourages students to enter and leave Commons as frequently as they desire with no financial recourse. Now, Student Government is making moves for an even more comprehensive meal plan – one that would allow students free meals over scheduled school breaks.

Currently, all meals are included under the universal meal plan during the regularly scheduled school year, as well as fall recess (October 18-22). During all other breaks, students have to pay for individual meals at a reduced rate, in cash or simply charge it to their account.

I spoke with Student Government President, Walter Washington ’19, who is determined to reform this current policy. “As the school increases its endowment and does a better job of recruiting people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and international students,” starts Washington, “that’s going to result in us having more students who can’t go home either because of cost or distance.” Because of this increasing shift in demographic, Washington and his fellow members of Student Government find it imperative that the Bates administration make a concerted effort to increase dining accessibility for students who may have food security issues during the holidays. Washington has encountered some pushback from the administration, who cited concerns with general costs.

Walter, though, is optimistic about the prospects of making meals free. “[The administration] is realizing more and more that Student Government is different, and we’re not just taking ‘no’ as much as we used to,” says Washington. “If you’re going to say no, we want to know why and where that money is going, and for you to be transparent. At the end of the day, the administration is responsible for giving us the best possible product they can. And if this is something that works toward the betterment of that product, I think we should receive it as students.”

Student Government’s next plan of action will be to conduct conversations with the school’s treasurer, Geoffrey Swift, as well as Christine Schwartz and Cheryl Lacey, who serve respectively as Assistant Vice President of Dining and Director of Dining.

I talked to Schwartz and Lacey as well, who wanted to emphasize the liberal nature of Bates’ existing universal meal plan, as well as cost-free options that Commons already provides, including the six free guest passes entitled to all students and the Mug Club. The “Mug Club” encourages students to scan their Bates mugs 40 times to get a free meal, making it so that each student could get a total of 15 free meals. Still, there are 101 possible meals over breaks that Commons could cover – 69 for which Commons is actually open, and only nine of which are covered under the board plan.

Schwartz has not yet met with Washington in person, and while she hopes to meet the needs of food insecure students as well, she expresses some reservations about the feasibility of entirely free meals during breaks. “I can tell you from our perspective,” she remarks, “it would be hard for us to absorb any additional costs, unless we’re talking about changing services [such as the current unlimited meal plan].” Nevertheless, Lacey and Schwartz “look forward to future talks with Walter to see what is his vision is and how we can support it.” The three of them will have their first formal, in-person meeting this week. New developments on Student Government’s efforts will be covered as they progress.

Ultimately, the student body’s opinion is the most important in this conversation. I connected with Tony Zhong ’21 of Beijing, China, who had a measured outlook on the debate. Zhong, who will be staying on campus during Thanksgiving, remarked that it makes sense “to charge for meals when most of the students won’t be here. Still, it would be nice if meals were free!” Zhong also appreciated the current meal system. “If I had to choose, I would rather have the unlimited meal plan and pay for meals over Thanksgiving.”

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