When I was debating whether or not to come to Swarthmore, I called up an alum that I knew through a friend of a friend and asked for the full rundown on everything the school had to offer. We talked for over an hour, but at the very end of the conversation when I asked him what his absolute favorite part of Swarthmore was, he immediately said that it was the food. He was a low-income student like I am, and the idea of getting nearly unlimited meals blew us both away. Growing up, I was fortunate to never be completely without food in my home. But we were on food stamps for most of my early childhood, and there wasn’t always meat or fresh fruits and vegetables to put on the table. Coming here, there are inarguably incredible amounts of food always available, more than enough to feed the roughly 1600 students coming through our campus every day multiple times a day.
So, when I arrived and began to hear complaints about how bad the food at Sharples was, I was genuinely surprised and taken aback. Two weeks in I was loving having pasta bar twice a week, being able to choose from different cereals in the morning, and having a whole salad bar at my disposal throughout the day. Fast forward another couple of months, and I became one of the jaded critics of on-campus dining. My complaints were mostly about how the food was made, how highly processed everything is, and the lack of change to the rotation in the meal schedule. But then one day I was standing in line and as I stepped up to the bar some people in front of me began complaining about the food right in front of the staff member serving our meals. A red flag came up for me.
I want to emphasize that these and other critiques are fair and understandable. Our dining services should be able to provide foods to meet students’ dietary restrictions and needs. People who’ve eaten in Bryn Mawr’s dining halls know that with an endowment of our size, we could be getting absolutely top-notch cuisine on a regular basis. But, at the same time, why do we so readily complain about the food when often there are other options available to us? At times I wonder if it isn’t a class issue; perhaps some people feel motivated to say the food here is bad as a way of expressing how much better they have it at home. Others, I’ve heard, feel limited by the options either due to a real medical condition, lifestyle choice, or even just a picky palate.
These two stances exist and are worth examining, but on reflection, I think that the majority of us just do it out of convenience, because complaining about a commonly disliked thing makes us feel like we fit in and like we’re somehow smart or enlightened because we have a critical perspective. This mindset is what I want to challenge in myself and others. In a way, we’re like the boomers we constantly make fun of, but instead of teens on their phones, the topic of our ridicule is pasta bar or jerk chicken night. Even worse, those at the expense of our ridicule are actual people who are working real hours and days of their lives to feed us three meals a day.
I’m not saying on-campus dining is fine dining; it’s not. But I think the culture we’ve built up around disliking it is harmful to our campus-wide community, and that includes staff. Going forward, I want to make an effort to tap into my gratitude, if not for the food itself, then for the incredible opportunities I’ve been given: to have enough to eat each day, to get to interact with the really wonderful people who serve it to me, and to eat it amongst people I care about.