Dining disasters: Is Georgetown creating food insecurity?

October 9, 2021

Graphic by Connor Martin and Max Zhang

Since the return of all Hoyas to the Hilltop, finding food on campus has become a burden.

Food insecurity among college students increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with a reported 5.8 out of 10 students lacking basic needs. The new meal plan requirement introduced this semester, which the university claimed would prevent food insecurity, mandates students to get their food mainly from Leo O’Donovan Dining Hall and the on-campus vendors that accept meal exchanges. In the past, students were able to choose among several plans, some significantly more inexpensive than the current options, and upperclassmen could choose to not select a plan at all.

The meal requirement has especially created problems for students with dietary restrictions, and with the recent norovirus outbreak on campus, more people are avoiding the university’s food. In response to these challenges, the GUSA Senate is advocating for more equitable dining policies.

“That’s really problematic that Georgetown is telling students that the meal plan is the only way to get food security,” Leo Rassieur (COL ’22), speaker of the GUSA Senate, said in an interview with the Voice. “But their solution to try to create food security actually, number one, doesn’t give people access to food, and number two, when they get access to food, they end up in the hospital.”

In the 2019–2020 school year, the minimum meal plan requirement was 18 swipes per week plus $200 Flex (costing $3,007 total) for freshmen, and 160 swipes per semester plus $350 Flex (costing $2,500 total) for sophomores; juniors and seniors were not required to purchase a meal plan, as many live in housing with kitchens. This year, first years and sophomores were required to purchase at least the All Access 7 plus $200 Flex ($3,260), and juniors and seniors were required to pay at least $2,978 and $1,614 for a meal plan, respectively.

The university’s email announcing the meal plan requirement in June stated that it would foster a sense of community through bonding in shared spaces, and students with financial aid have the All Access 7 plus $200 Flex plan included in their packages to ensure food security. But students say the requirement is exploitative and financially motivated, especially because the cost of the meal plan averages $13 per meal, making it more expensive than buying groceries or dining off-campus in some cases. 

“I don’t think it takes a whole lot of thought to realize why this requirement exists, namely that the university has been in a financial crisis of its own for a while now because of the pandemic,” Rassieur said. “[The mandatory meal plan] is maybe one of many things they’re doing to recuperate the losses at the expense of students.” 

According to Rassieur, when the requirement was announced in the spring, GUSA identified it as a cause of financial concern among students. On Aug. 29, GUSA introduced a resolution demanding that the university act on food insecurity and change the meal plan requirement. 

Food insecurity at Georgetown was a problem even before the pandemic. In 2016, a university poll found that 54 percent of the student body on campus had experienced food insecurity. In 2019, Georgetown Students Advancing Food Equity (SAFE) opened the Hoya Hub, a community pantry that provides free food for students, now located in the Village A Community Room. Georgetown Mutual Aid also accepts donations of Flex dollars for redistribution to food-insecure students.

This semester, there are several new sources of food insecurity: long lines at Leo’s extending to Cooper Field at times; overcrowding in the dining hall, which creates a COVID-19 health concern; a lack of options for those with dietary restrictions; and stations at Leo’s running out of food, forcing students to pay for meals with Flex or out-of-pocket. In the last few weeks, several students have avoided the dining hall altogether for fear of catching norovirus or salmonella. 

The GUSA resolution also included complaints about technical difficulties that make it difficult to access food, such as issues with the GrubHub app and meal exchanges, which resulted in some students having to use Flex to pay for meals that should have been covered by meal exchanges. Additionally, the temporary removal of Whisk from the meal exchange program diminished the value of the meal plans. 

In response to these early issues, Marc Fournier, vice president for auxiliary business services, wrote to the community that changes had been made to alleviate overcrowding in Leo’s. These included faster GOCard readers, to-go containers for food, and the use of meal swipes instead of exchanges at Leo | MKT, including Whisk. Fournier also addressed confusion regarding the use of the GrubHub app and said the university would begin refunding people who were accidentally charged Flex instead of meal exchanges. (Klonopin)

According to Rassieur, the administration did not consult GUSA before making these changes. “We told them that the root cause of the issue was the meal plan requirement and, in essence, they ignored us,” he said. “They made this change that, admittedly, is beneficial, but that’s not really the solution that we’ve been asking for for months, so it’s very frustrating.”

These changes did not alleviate the obstacles that students with dietary restrictions face, especially given that Leo’s stations designed to accommodate certain needs—such as allergen or halal diets—sometimes run out of food or are especially susceptible to foodborne illness.

Akil Cole (COL ’24), who adheres to a vegan diet, has difficulty satisfying all of his nutritional needs on the meal plan. He does not require a lot of variety in his meals, but outside of breakfast, it is difficult to find sources of protein. In some cases, the food options have been misleading, such as tofu—a typical source of protein for those who eat vegan or vegetarian—that contained fish. 

Cole is not the only one encountering difficulties in the dining hall. “My dietary restrictions already make it difficult for me to eat on the meal plan,” Han Miller (COL ’23) wrote in an email to the Voice. In addition to limited food options, Miller has trouble accessing that food, which is why they would prefer not to have a meal plan. “Leo’s is not a safe or conducive space for my OCD or sensory processing disorder.” 

Health concerns about on-campus food further limit student dining options. On Sept. 21, Georgetown’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Ranit Mishori sent an email about a gastrointestinal illness impacting 12 students, then suspected to be salmonella. The next day, GUSA set up a Google form for students to report if they were experiencing symptoms of food poisoning. Within 24 hours, GUSA received over 30 responses.

A follow-up email days later confirmed that two people had tested positive for norovirus, which is a contagious gastrointestinal illness with similar symptoms to salmonella. By the following week, 150 students and faculty reported having these symptoms, and one student had been hospitalized. The university instituted a quarantine meal delivery service, cleaned the rooms of affected individuals, and increased sanitization of frequently-touched surfaces. Though the source of the illness has still not been determined, prepackaged and washed foods in the dining locations were removed out of caution.

While campus dining locations were approved to remain open after a visit from D.C. Health, student discomfort with eating on campus persists. “I could choose to eat more salad, which is I guess an option,” Cole said. “But particularly the norovirus going on right now, there’s a lot of concerns with eating raw food, which especially cuts down on the options.” 

Norovirus is not the only concern about university food, as some students experienced gastrointestinal illness after eating on campus before the outbreak.

“Many of the students who reported being ill recently after eating at Leo’s—or some other Georgetown dining location—they had previously gotten ill or had some kind of adverse reaction to eating,” Rassieur said, pointing to an issue larger than the recent outbreak. “It’s been like this for a while, it’s just that it possibly became more severe or more students have been falling ill recently. So this is an ongoing problem.”

Though Miller did not contract norovirus, they experienced food-related illness before the outbreak. “I [attempted] to eat at Crop Chop a few times because they do have a few options that I can eat. However, all three times I had gastrointestinal problems after eating there. These occasions were earlier on in the school year before the campus wide issues,” they wrote.

The university requires students experiencing norovirus symptoms to quarantine in their rooms until they have received a negative COVID-19 test, while roommates do not receive temporary housing. With several contagious illnesses going around campus, Leo’s is even more of a public health concern, according to Rassieur. 

The gastrointestinal illnesses impact both students’ health and academic performance. Those who cannot afford to pay for off-campus food in addition to the meal plan have been affected the most, Rassieur said. “For students who aren’t able to just Doordash or buy groceries and get out of the meal plan requirement, if they are just stuck in the hospital all day or they’re not getting enough meals a day because they don’t trust eating on campus anymore, then it presents such a huge hurdle to the academic success,” Rassieur said. “That creates problems of equity in the classroom.”

For students who are buying additional meals, the extra cost is still burdensome.“Because I do not eat on the dining plan except for using my Flex dollars, I am paying for the meal plan while simultaneously paying to feed myself, which is not financially sustainable,” Miller wrote.

GUSA scheduled a meeting with school administrators on Sept. 27 to learn about actions being taken to locate the source of the norovirus, how the university planned to restore students’ trust in on-campus dining, and to restate their demand that the meal requirement be waived now that students are afraid to use it. However, the university seemed unwilling to reconsider.

“I asked administrators point-blank whether, in light of all that’s happened, they still believed this meal plan requirement is helping students,” Rassieur wrote. According to him, the administrators in attendance maintained that the requirement is beneficial, and that the food on campus has not been confirmed as the source of illness. 

On Oct. 1, GUSA held a teach-in to inform students about actions they are taking to push for the end of the meal plan requirement. The event was accompanied by a slideshow presentation entitled “The Food Security Crisis at Georgetown: Or, how Georgetown is profiting off of students getting food poisoning.”

Vice President of GUSA Nicole Sanchez (SFS ’22) said that when GUSA reported their findings on students’ fears about eating at on-campus dining locations, the administration brushed off these concerns, as the food has not been confirmed as the source of the norovirus outbreak.

GUSA members in attendance expressed their disappointment with the administration’s lack of action to combat recurring food insecurity. Sen. Mirka Sosa (COL ’23) believes there should not be a need for resources such as the Hoya Hub. “It just shows how a school like Georgetown is not doing anything for its students,” she said.

At the teach-in, GUSA members also referenced an email communication sent to students the day before, instructing them to attend class unless they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Even if a student is ill, having a family emergency, or other life events, the university set clear expectations for in-person involvement and no guarantee of providing synchronous virtual resources.

In light of the multiple contagious illnesses circulating throughout campus, including norovirus, Sen. Megan Skinner (SFS ’24) said the email notice creates a dangerous incentive for students to always show up to class despite potential sickness. “It is overall unacceptable when people don’t feel safe in their classes,” she said. 

At the end of the teach-in, GUSA members presented their list of demands including the end of the meal plan requirement, refunds for the difference between the current and former meal plans, and that students affected by the gastrointestinal illness be compensated with Flex for additional food costs. 

In an Oct. 3 GUSA meeting, the Senate followed through with an unanimous resolution demanding the university take steps to address food safety. Included in the document are added concerns about the burden placed on food service employees, who are overworked due to the meal plan requirement and increased rush of students. The university received additional criticism for its treatment of dining hall workers in the spring semester, when they faced high exposure to COVID-19 and whose low wages did not cover basic expenses. GUSA encouraged the university to hire more staff members to address this issue.

Though GUSA also pointed to a lack of training of food service staff as a source of concern, Cole wants to remind students not to misdirect frustrations that stem from administrative policies toward the employees preparing the food. 

“I would like to give a shout-out to the Leo’s workers,” he said. “Most of them are really cool, nice, and helpful, and they’re doing an important role here.” 

Maya Kominsky
Maya is the Leisure Executive and a senior in the College majoring in American Studies. She took two years to write a bio and this is the best she could come up with.

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