A Student’s Perspective on Swarthmore’s Eateries: Did Fall Break Dining Fall Short?

The phoenix mural stretches across the entrance to Sharples, a multicolored painting sealed with hairspray.

Considering its relatively small student population, Swarthmore treats students to a broad range of daily dining options that are generally diverse, tasty, and readily available. 

Swarthmore’s primary eatery, Sharples, makes a clear effort to appeal to all members of Swarthmore’s diverse student body with a rotating menu system that frequently samples cuisines from different parts of the world. The grill, salad, and vegetarian bars, as well as bread and drink stations, ensure that most students and faculty can find options that suit their dietary needs and taste preferences. Moreover, Sharples’s weekday hours of operation allow most students plenty of time to squeeze in a meal around a busy schedule. 

Outside of Sharples, options such as Essie Mae’s, the Kohlberg Coffee Bar, the Science Center Cafe, and Crumb Cafe offer plenty of additional food choices that satisfy all but the pickiest of eaters or those with extreme dietary restrictions. With some locations open as late as midnight, it is almost always possible to find a snack, meal, or beverage on campus — that is, on weekdays during normal school operation. 

The merits of Swarthmore’s dining experience diminish come weekends, when all dining locations other than Sharples and the Science Center Cafe close completely, and Sharples itself adopts unfavorable hours that can make choosing mealtimes a logical puzzle. Most students can recall a time or two when they missed the 7 p.m. Sharples dinner deadline, thinking they had until 8 p.m. to grab their meal. Additional weekend quirks at Sharples include the closure of the grill and the absence of breakfast on Sundays (aside from the continental breakfast from 10 to 11 a.m.), among others. 

School breaks present a more extreme restriction on dining options, and the recent Fall Break was no exception. For the majority of the week, Sharples and other on-campus options closed, leaving Essie’s as the primary source of meals on campus. Students were allowed two meal swipes per day at the snack bar, as well as the ability to spend Dining Dollars. The most notable inconvenience of the system for students was that Essie’s would close at 7 p.m., meaning that the grill would be shut off thirty minutes beforehand, around 6:30 p.m. As a result, the latest students could get dinner without risk of arriving after the closure of the grill was around 6:15 p.m. For dinner hours, this felt absurdly early, especially for those used to eating during Sharples’s more standard dinner hours of 4 to 8 p.m. As a consequence, Essie’s lines surged between 6 and 6:30 p.m., resulting in long waiting times and what appeared to be generally more stressful conditions for the workers. However, while these changes to an otherwise consistent college dining situation posed a slight inconvenience to the student body and snack bar food staff, they still allowed all students to have meals on campus, given that they planned ahead.

That was not the case this past Saturday, when all of Swarthmore’s on-campus options closed completely, leaving those on campus to eat in the ville. Though such off-campus options are certainly delicious, diverse, and convenient, the fact that they only accept Swat Points and real money revealed an oversight on behalf of the college, since the reliance on such destinations disproportionately hurt students on certain meal plans.

To understand this perspective, it is necessary to explore the meal plans that the college offers. At the beginning of each semester, students have the opportunity to select a plan from a handful of options, each differing in the numbers of meal swipes, Swat Points, and Dining Dollars. Some plans, such as the Parrish Plan, include large amounts of Swat Points ($400) and Dining Dollars ($500) but limited Sharples meal swipes (160), encouraging regular off-campus dining. Other plans, such as the Swat Plan, have fewer amounts of Swat Points and Dining Dollars (both $150), but greater (or even infinite) numbers of Sharples meal swipes, encouraging more dining hall use. Students on plans with fewer Swat Points were at a disadvantage during Saturday’s closure of on-campus dining locations, since these students were forced to use their highly limited Swat Points if they wanted to eat proper meals. This disproportionately affected first year students, since they are limited to a choice of only two meal plans, the Swat Plan and Garnet Plan, which have the least and second least numbers of Swat Points respectively. Even worse, students who had already exhausted their supply of Swat Points by Saturday would have needed to use real money for their meals.

While this past Saturday’s dining situation was a blunder on behalf of the college, the decision to close on-campus dining certainly had merits of its own, as it provided dining staff a break from their everyday responsibilities. Moreover, with a large portion of students returning home during Fall Break, the operation of the entire dining hall seemed unnecessary, and even wasteful. 

This said, it is clear that the college could have devised a system for Saturday’s closure that could have allowed for college staff to have the day off while also not stranding students with limited amounts of Swat Points. Potential solutions could have included the college coordinating with local vendors to allow for the temporary use of meal swipes in the Ville, or supplying students additional Swat Points to be used only on that Saturday. Though the latter solution was utilized to some extent for student athletes, the stipend often fell far short of the realistic amount of money students would need for meals in the Ville for some teams. For example, student-athletes on the varsity men’s and women’s cross country team received a mere $25 for the entirety of the three or more days they were on campus during the Break.

Ultimately, while the Swarthmore meal system was sufficient for the vast majority of students over Fall Break, the college’s oversights on the logistics of their system are concerning for upcoming school breaks. Consequently, it is important that the college recognizes the discontent of its students and takes action so that improvements can be made for the future.

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