Some students find anxiety, alienation in the one dining hall

 

Even as the growing student body stretches the building to its limits, the single dining hall is often discussed as a feature of the school. Tour guides present prospective students with the virtues of Sharples: under one roof, the single dining hall becomes more than just an eatery, taking on social, academic, and, yes, community-building functions. Twice a week, we together manage to consume 120 pounds of pasta, and each day we eat between 400 and 600 bananas.

Central, necessary, and sustaining, Sharples can be a symbol and a measure of what we think of as the community of Swarthmore College. There are other places to get food and chat with friends — Essie Mae’s and the two coffee bars feed many community members each day. But in the end, Sharples remains the only dining hall on campus.

For many, the centrality of Sharples is, indeed, greatly convenient. But for students who have experienced difficulties maintaining their psychological well-being with regards to food, the opposite can be true. For these students, central can mean unavoidable, overlapping functions can mean stressful complications, and adequate sustenance can become a daily trial. The Phoenix reached out to students who have struggled with food and dining in their time at the college, and wanted to share their experiences.

Colette Gerstmann ’18, who has dealt with anxiety problems since she was a child, described a first year of college that was marked by anxiety related to food, dining, and Sharples. She explained that her anxiety frequently takes the shape of what she described as over-active self awareness of her body, so that her mood and psychological state are tied closely to her eating habits and her physical health.

“Because my particular anxieties manifest themselves in worry or stress about food, having limited access to dining… further limits when I can and can’t eat, and so adds to my daily stress,” she said. “I guess part of that is the nature of cafeterias in general, but the particular culture of Swarthmore’s dining is that you really have to eat in these particular spaces at these particular times.”

Though she is returning to Swarthmore in the spring, Gerstmann transferred to Columbia after the completion of her freshman year. She reported that the greater number of dining options on the urban campus influenced her decision to transfer. Next semester, she plans to live off-campus and looks forward to having more autonomy with her eating and meal preparation choices.

Gretchen Trupp ’18 also experienced first-year difficulties with Sharples. Trupp reported that patterns of disordered eating they hadn’t experienced since high school resurfaced during a period of particularly intense academic stress last spring. Though the return of their eating disorder was most intense in its initial stages, Trupp said that their difficulties with Sharples and food continued.

“For months after, the Sharples environment was very stressful for me… the portions would be too big or the food was not appealing. So it was hard to recover from relapsing with that food available…” they said. “But also, mentally, I couldn’t sit in the big room for months, because it was too many people and it was physically uncomfortable.”

Elizabeth, who declined to use her real name, also discussed coming to Swarthmore with a history of eating disorders and the complications that occur when aspects of that history resurface. Initially, Elizabeth explained, she was optimistic about Sharples.

“I was excited when I first got to Sharples. I remember telling my family and stuff, I was excited that they had all these vegan options,” she said. Nonetheless, her relationship with food on campus got worse over time.

“It was a combination of liking the food less and less … , and social anxiety, [which was the result of] being around that many people and eating in front of that many people, feeling like other people are judging my food…” she said. “While I was fine when I first got to Swat — I don’t know if it was a combination of those other factors — but I ended up getting bad again.”

Elizabeth thought that more private rooms, longer hours, and more self-service cooking options could have helped alleviate her social and dietary anxieties.

For all three respondents, the centrality of Sharples as a social space was built into their negative experiences.

“Part of me not wanting to go to Sharples while recovering was that I felt like everyone was watching or would comment on my eating,” said Trupp. “[these pressures] made it into a space that was very uncomfortable for me. So I would withdraw from that socially because I wouldn’t want to interact with people.”

For Gerstmann, anxiety about Sharples as a social space was combined with the physical qualities of the space.

“If I were feeling particularly anxious on a particular day, it would be a more positive experience for me to eat not in a social space because that exacerbates my anxiety,” she said. “Especially when it’s a cafeteria which is a closed environment, [where] there are all these other people. If I need to get away from them or be alone or deal with my own stress I can’t because then I can’t take my food with me.”

Since moving off campus, Elizabeth has spent far less time at Sharples. While she feels good about this change, it is an approach that comes with its own drawbacks.

“I feel a lot more anonymous or distant not going to Sharples as often, because Sharples is where you’re exposed to the most faces and [it is] the most casual setting at Swat,” she said. “But I think now, at least, I go with the intention of it being a social space whereas it was more stressful when there wasn’t another option…  if I was hungry it meant I had to deal with people. Which meant if I wasn’t capable of dealing with people at the time that would be an excuse to not eat.”

Beyond the social aspect, the respondents reported bumping up against particular rules of the dining hall. Though Trupp and Gerstmann’s experiences were dissimilar in as many ways as not, they both discussed difficulties related to not feeling control over when and where they could choose to eat food.

“I was looking for small things that I could keep putting into myself…” said Trupp, explaining that they needed to eat small amounts of food periodically during recovery. “The cereal bar was helpful… But it’s also hard because they don’t let you take food out. Those mealtimes were the only times you could get food, besides having food in your room.”

Trupp said that they had a hard time finding healthy food to have in their room to eat between meals. They worked many hours in student jobs that semester, but much of that money went towards their tuition and it was difficult to find money to purchase nutritious snacks.

Gerstmann had problems with dining flexibility during her freshman year, as well.

“I had insomnia that semester. Eating was really hard then because I was sleeping weird hours and I was living in ML. So it was hard for me to access food facilities,” she said. “it would have been really helpful for me to just have food I could take wherever, [so I could] take a nap and wake up and eat”

Both Gerstmann and Trupp specifically addressed the rule against taking food out of Sharples as a limitation on their ability to navigate these respective difficulties.

Not all peer schools have similar rules enforcing that food be eaten on the premises of the dining hall. Williams, Middlebury and Haverford all offer take-out containers at their dining halls, which students can use to bring food out of the dining hall. Sharples offers packout meals upon student request, but these meals replace rather than supplement a normal meal swipe. At Williams, students are allowed to take whatever they want from the dining hall on without extra cost, and can return reusable utensils at one of several return stations around the campus. Middlebury does not have a swipe system at all.

Besides the take-out rule, all three respondents discussed expanding the hours of Sharples as a potential change.

Dining Services Director Linda McDougall argued that, as the student body grows, space limitations represent the main restraint for dining reforms, including many of those mentioned above.

“It’s quite obvious we’ve outgrown this space. There are many times I see students sitting on the hearth of the fireplace because there’s not enough chairs. If I had my way things would change. I have to say, it’s been a very serious conversation with the administration about how to try and figure out how to expand this current space.” Expanding the dining hall is currently part of the school’s master plan for upcoming infrastructure development.

With more space, McDougall explained, there could be more self-service and to-order food stations, and more availability of private rooms. McDougall was unsure whether Sharples could store enough food to handle increased consumption with a take-out rule.

“If we said everyone could come in here and take out anything they want there’s no way that we could even estimate how much food we would need or if we would even be able to store that much food,” she said.

McDougall explained that similar problems apply to Essie Mae’s. Though all of the respondents expressed that they utilized Essie Mae’s in some fashion, none thought that it was a consistent substitute for a Sharples meal. McDougall explained that space constraints affect the amount and type of food that can be served at Essie Mae’s.

“Essie Mae’s is really not made to be a place for a meal replacement. It’s kind of supposed to be just a place you would just go get a snack. But it has grown into being a place where people go and get their meals …  Even to just to store the amount of food that we need to keep that place going is very, very challenging.”

McDougall noted that the college is planning an internal review of dining services that will include a student committee. Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown confirmed plans for this committee.

But Brown noted many constraints to structural changes to dining on campus, including budgetary, staffing, environmental, and efficiency concerns.

Student Wellness Program Manager Noemí Fernandez spoke to tensions between individual voices and institutional rules. She emphasized that wellness needs to begin from a place of self-reflection and self-awareness, and argued that empowering students to seek out support works best. Fernandez sees wider institutional change as a necessarily slow and deliberate process.

To the credit of the student respondents, each expressed in various ways an appreciation for the functions of the institutions beyond their individual cases. Interviewees acknowledged, for instance, the staffing concerns related to changing the hours Sharples is open. In articulating her concerns, Gerstmann specifically addressed the ways in which Sharples works well for many others.

“I acknowledge that my situation is a unique one, and that the intention of Sharples being the only dining hall where you can’t take food out is to foster a space on campus where people go and talk to each other.” she said. “But I think that … [there are] things that could be more flexible for students for whom for whatever reason that doesn’t work.”

In the context of the coming student committee, though, institutional change and student concerns are not necessarily at odds. The committee will include, alongside athletes and RAs, students with special dietary concerns. According to Brown, the committee will discuss several of the same questions that the respondents brought up: dining hall hours, meal plan flexibility, and a take-out option.

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