Let students choose where to eat

By William Baude

University of Chicago students in housing will soon receive a description of the new dining plans available to them. The end result of these changes is likely to be the restriction of Bartlett to those living in Max Palevsky Residential Commons. Students at other dorms may be able to purchase meals using Flex Dollars, but only for relatively exorbitant prices. The restriction is to be made both in the name of reducing crowds at Bartlett and preserving the lauded house tables. The decision is unnecessary, unhelpful, and ill-advised.

Having finally created a dining hall that is open both early and late (a boon to students, like me, taking classes that end at 7:00 p.m.), serves (comparatively) edible food, and has glasses that are both large and clean (in contrast to the orange pulp-speckled glassware at Pierce), the administration is making a perverse decision in limiting access. The problems of theft were severe (rumors abound of a pair of roommates who kept over three hundred Bartlett glasses in their dorm room), it is true, but anti-theft measures seem a better choice than exile. Many students would gladly contribute to keeping Bartlett’s dishware from being stolen if they could continue to eat there. Rather than figure out how to keep students out of Bartlett, the administration should figure out how to expand the dining hall’s capacity.

The second defense of the plan–the protection of ostensibly disintegrating house tables–is equally unconvincing. As it stands, many students attend Bartlett together; the members of one house in Broadview have formed an unofficial house table in Bartlett, and friends from other dorms will walk to dinner at Bartlett in groups. It seems unlikely that moving from one dining hall to another with a group of dinner companions will destroy house cohesiveness. Furthermore, the value of eating dinner with one’s living companions is much higher when the association is voluntary. After all, there are a number of mysterious upperclassmen in my hall whom I haven’t seen at meals since the opening of Bartlett…but I didn’t see them at meals before Bartlett either.

The house system at the University of Chicago is strong, and edible food is not going to change that. Members of my dorm will accompany one another to an amusement park, dinners, the ballet, a plethora of house meetings, and a number of other events. We see each other in the lounge, keep each other awake after quiet hours, and visit each other’s rooms until the wee hours of the morning. These are not the people I see too little of during my day. While it is nice to spend a huge portion of one’s time with the same people, having the liberty to eat edible food out of clean dishes with people who I don’t talk to as much as I would like to is a nice way to spend an evening. If the problem is an uneven distribution of population at the dining halls, fix it by making Pierce and Burton-Judson better, not by making Bartlett a special treat for those who live in Max Palevsky. Put fresh foods in the other delis. Make the glasses bigger. Find bread that isn’t stale and tasteless. Find a way to chisel off the strange residues that linger on the dishes in dining halls not equipped with Bartlett’s dishwasher. At Pierce, yesterday’s Pesto Pasta will be today’s Sundried Tomato Pesto Pasta, tomorrow’s Tomato Pesto Noodle Soup, and simmered down to make next week’s pasta sauce. Burton-Judson’s series of indistinguishable and inedible rice and grain dishes will continue to accrue new spices and flavorings until Monday’s rice, reheated and reseasoned four times, is thrown into Friday’s soup. Bartlett is by no means the height of culinary delights, but it is at slightly more free from endless recycling of the same inedible foodstuffs. Some of the problems at B-J and Pierce could be cured simply by preparing less food, but the problem will never truly be fixed until Monday’s rice and Pesto Pasta are edible in the first place.

Let students choose where they want to eat. By dint of living in University Housing they are forced to purchase several thousand dollars worth of Aramark food, so it seems fair to allow at least a little latitude in choosing a dining hall. A new, clean dining hall accessible to all students, with better food, cleaner dishes, more variety, and (let us not forget) much more civilized hours is a worthy aim. The administration did well to provide it this year; the smart response to this accomplishment is not to take it away but to expand upon its success.