GW: Hungry by Design?

By Professor David Rain, Food Institute Faculty Coordinator

The GW Food Institute sits on the compact Foggy Bottom campus surrounded by notable landmarks such as Lisner Auditorium and an embarrassment of fine eateries including Founding Farmers, Beefsteak, Tonic, and Circa, all of which give an impression of upscale chic. But a problem became unmasked last fall when the University announced that it was opening a food pantry on campus to deal with hidden hunger in the student population, an irony that attracted ample press attention (See NPR link).

The Food Institute last month co-hosted an event with the Cisneros Institute on college hunger and homelessness, and their report details many issues including substantially higher rates of food insecurity among community college students than previously reported. Student hunger and homelessness are prevalent in all regions of the country.

One issue viscerally felt at GW (and reported on recently by the student newspaper, The Hatchet) is the lack of affordable meal options on campus. Ask most any GW student what their strategy is to satisfy daily nutritional and caloric requirements and you will get an earful. The GWorld (ID) card works in some places but not in others. Up until recent changes went through, unused “dining dollars” disappeared at the end of the semester. There is a general lack of noncommercial dining halls and kitchens on campus. In fact there is only one University-run dining operation, Pelham Commons on the Mount Vernon campus. There is none on Foggy Bottom. While it is super-convenient to grab an $8 bowl of soup at Devon and Blakely, it’s rather more challenging to find something nourishing and affordable. Even with options such as an on-campus Whole Foods and a nearby Trader Joe’s, students lack storage and cooking facilities to make economical use of these establishments.

Why is this?  One theory traces the rise of GW as an institution to Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the university president of about 20 years (1988-2007). Trachtenberg, like his late counterpart at Boston University, John Silber, dramatically grew the institution and raised tuition, turning a commuter school into a university with a worldwide reputation. Trachtenberg hails from Brooklyn and like many a New Yorker, he relied on nearby commercial enterprises to keep himself and his charges fed. Why build dining halls when space is so scarce and you can just go to the deli and get a tuna sandwich?

As a new faculty member years ago, I found myself on a DC-bound Amtrak train from New York seated next to an undergraduate GW student. By happenstance I was meeting with President Trachtenberg the next day. I asked the student what her biggest gripe was with GW. Without pausing to reflect, she said it was the food options. Of course I took that concern to my luncheon with the president and got a bit of a scoffing reply.  Since that day we’ve had a successful presidency of Steven Knapp (and his nutritionist spouse Diane) who have focused some of their resources on sustainability programs. The new GW Food Institute was chartered under the Knapp’s watch. In addition, numerous new restaurants have opened, and of course we have the Whole Foods. But even if they are widely used, these options are hardly affordable for students on tight and limited budgets. The food pantry then becomes a necessity.

The Marvin Center normally houses J Street, though it’s been closed all year, and not slated to re-open. A central dining hall that is open to students would be a boon. Another excellent addition would be a PX-type food-buying club, but then students would need more storage and cooking facilities, or maybe cooking classes. Other schools including those with urban campuses have far more non-commercial options. Is GW’s problem then that we lack the square footage on campus to make other options available?  Or do we lack the will to counter the impulse to think the marketplace can keep our students fed?

Let’s hope that the new president, Tom LeBlanc, is willing to look seriously at this problem and invest in a solution, even if it is less profitable for the bottom line.