Discourse / Editorials / April 10, 2013

Thoughts from the Embers: Crowding in the cafeteria

EmbersTo the student who can’t find a place to sit at lunchtime, the prospect of growing the college by 200 students over the next four years, given current facilities, sounds entirely unappetizing. Crowding in the cafeteria and long lines at the Grab ‘n Go have become a regular feature of residential life at Knox, one that causes many to question the viability of cramming in another 200 students. A simple solution to caf crowding exists — but it’s not one you’ll hear being considered.

Short-term fixes have already been proposed, yet are woefully insufficient. This term has seen the introduction of longer hours at the Post Grab ‘n Go, whose lines are the stuff of legend. Yet this has not solved the caf crowding problem, and it cannot address space issues at dinnertime, perhaps the busiest time of day.

Additional ideas include using the Lincoln Room during meals (not feasible on weekends, when the Oak Room is closed, or when it is being used for events), allowing students to eat outside on the Gizmo patio (not feasible in the winter) and opening an additional Grab ‘n Go in the Taylor Lounge (perhaps the best idea on this list, but not likely to divert much traffic). Each of these solutions only addresses the problem at certain times of the day, week or year and cannot be viewed as a serious way of solving crowding. Expanding the cafeteria, another idea often discussed, is a long-term project and would require money we do not have.

A long-term, relatively simple fix does exist, however. It requires no additional space or planning, and it builds on pre-existing student desires. It’s simple: make it easier to get off-board.

Getting off-board is notoriously difficult. Unless you can demonstrate a serious food allergy, religious dietary restrictions not capable of being accommodated by Dining Services or the ability to whine and beg effectively, your request will likely not be granted. Even if you live off-campus, you must apply separately to be off-board.

Many students who eat in the cafeteria would rather not, yet the bureaucratic red tape surrounding being off-board keeps them in chairs that could be filled with those students that end up milling around awkwardly at dinnertime because there are no seats.

There is a financial argument for keeping students on-board: commuter meal plans cost almost $1,000 less than regular meal plans (and being off-board is $1,398 cheaper upfront), and 1,400 students’ board payments are not pocket change. Still, this argument does not hold up to serious scrutiny. Fewer students eating in the cafeteria would require the production of less food, which would necessitate a smaller Dining Services budget.

Do the cost savings match up exactly with the decrease in revenue? Perhaps not. And herein lies the paradox at the heart of growing the college: while it is recruiting 200 more students to pay tuition and shore up Knox’s finances, it must also provide space for those students. The struggle is therefore between the immediate need of creating more places to eat and the fundamental need to not decrease revenue. And, while bringing in money is certainly important, its significance is much less meaningful to the student eating his or her lunch while literally standing in a corner.

Making it easier for students to get off-board is both feasible and simple to implement. Most importantly, it responds to the desires of current students without putting additional demands on other spaces or creating financially unviable projects. Bringing in 200 students to raise revenues in the long term will ultimately benefit Knox, but it cannot be accomplished by straining current students to the max. The strategic assessment of long-term goals and short-term necessities will be crucial as we move forward with growing the college; allowing more students to go off-board is perhaps the easiest way to begin balancing these dueling needs.

TKS will be writing extensively this term about the plan to grow the college. Have opinions or a story to share? Drop us a line at tks@knox.edu.

Tags:  board bureaucratic cafeteria dining services Knox College Lincoln Room Oak Room off-board red tape

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