Privileged students at Vanderbilt must acknowledge and support their financially-insecure peers, especially in regards to the meal plan. (Photo courtesy Claire Rich)
Privileged students at Vanderbilt must acknowledge and support their financially-insecure peers, especially in regards to the meal plan. (Photo courtesy Claire Rich)

Eat the Rich: Wealthy students must recognize their food privilege at Vandy

Eating out nightly is not an option for every student, and privileged students need to recognize this by offering their support to food-insecure students.

September 23, 2020

(Photo courtesy Claire Rich)

From Taco Mama to Rand cookies, Vanderbilt’s meal plan and meal money system has a lot to offer. Vanderbilt is, in fact, sixth in the nation for best campus food. Now, I’m not going to lie and say that this didn’t factor into my application decision. A great school with a great campus and great food—what more could I ask for? I believe many students would agree that they were, at least, excited to try the famous Rand cookies (which surely live up to their reputation). 

Recently, however, there have been several complaints about the dining hall menus, including on the Vanderbilt Class of 2024 Parents Facebook group. What hasn’t been acknowledged by many parents and students is that while some students can afford to eat off campus every night, many others cannot. It can be incredibly ostracizing for a student to admit that they can’t afford to go out and have to eat whatever their meal plan has to offer. Eating out is only one aspect of the financial ostracization students can experience; some students struggle to buy textbooks, school supplies or other college necessities. This can greatly affect one’s sense of belonging at Vanderbilt—something that should never be based upon wealth. 

Full disclosure, I come from an upper-class family in Westchester, New York, but I do understand the privileged viewpoint I speak from when discussing class issues. I’m writing this in an effort to show others similar to me that our experiences are not in any way universal. To my less-privileged peers, I recognize and care about your experiences. Although Vanderbilt has done incredible things to keep financially insecure students safe, happy and healthy, it is important to note that the feelings of ostracization due to financial insecurity are still an aspect of the college experience here. Among a sea of Golden Goose sneakers and Gucci necklaces, it is important to remember that there are still many financially insecure students attending Vanderbilt, and for us to take steps to support them. 

Personally, I’ve been making sure that those I eat with are comfortable with our plans. To me, it’s most important to make certain that new friends feel at ease, regardless of their financial standing. If you’re unsure of a friend’s financial security, consider letting them propose where to get food. Taste of Nashville is a great program that offers many students the chance to eat off campus on the meal plan, but it unfortunately cannot include every restaurant in Nashville. While some students wish to eat “off the card” occasionally, others may feel uncomfortable doing so. I recently had a friend express to me that they felt guilty and anxious about eating off their meal plan. Immediately, I assured them that I would feel most comfortable eating wherever they felt secure. A short, simple conversation left us both feeling better.

Often, there seems to be a stigma surrounding wealth disparity. If you’re wealthy, it’s impolite to address it. If you’re not, it’s uncomfortable. While many students wish to avoid impoliteness or uncomfort, there are instances where these conversations are necessary. If you’re wealthy, please look for signs in your friends that may be food-insecure. Anxiety about eating out, rationing food or even using dates as a way to get a free meal are all signs that a friend may be struggling. Offer your unwavering support to your friends, regardless of their wealth. Be an empathetic friend. If you are food-insecure, find a trusted friend to talk about it with. Or, find me! I can’t imagine how you must feel with the omnipresent anxiety of a new school year in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Adding food or financial insecurity onto that can create a dangerous level of stress. In addition, please take advantage of the excellent counseling services Vanderbilt offers if you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious or just confused. 

Vanderbilt should not be a school exclusively for the wealthy. The entire student body must work together to be inclusive of different experiences. As students, it’s our responsibility to spur this inclusivity. To my readers that are able to go out when they don’t like the Commons menu: it shouldn’t need to take a friend disclosing to you that they can’t afford to go out to eat again for you (or me) to realize our privilege. Let’s work together to make this school as welcoming and warm as possible.

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Comments (8)

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be nice
2 years ago

As someone who comes from a family who doesn’t make more than 30k a year, I am thankful that someone is speaking about this. I wasn’t too sure about this article when I read the title. Your title made me laugh because it seems to be encouraging some sort of a victim mentality. Please don’t feel bad because you’re rich. Enjoy it.

I don’t think it is fair to expect students to automatically realize their privileges. You yourself only recognized your privilege to eat out wherever and whenever after one of your friends expressed that she couldn’t afford to do so. I personally don’t care if someone recognizes their privilege, as long as they are understanding and don’t think of me as less of a person because I can’t afford to eat out every night.

2 years ago

Thank you for your insight. Well said. I feel Vanderbilt itself is part of the problem, which you did not address. Vanderbilt continues to add dining options, but they require commodore cash or meal money. The new, better food options do not allow students to use prepaid swipes. Meanwhile, the long lines and dissapointing food options for swipe use continue. Swipes should be converted to meal money. The system is overly complicated and not working. Converting swipes to meal money will allow ALL the kids an opportunity to eat the healthy, tasty meals that are currently being enjoyed only by those who can afford to pay extra money.

Jane Smith
2 years ago

@Eida in the comments…

How is food insecure a racist term? You could argue systemic racism does have some affect on food insecurity rates for different groups of people, but since when is the term itself racist?

I think it would be better if you didn’t go through life thinking every little article is an attack on you or abominably racist. This article is doing good work drawing attention to an issue on a surface level, even if it doesn’t talk about the causes of food insecurities.

Joshua Woods
2 years ago

I am white and from a very poor community. Those struggling with food at home and at this university are of all colors and creeds. My mother raised me on ~22k a year, her mother on less than that, and my great grandmother on even less (even adjusted for inflation if one would like to consider that). To Eida, this is not a struggle one can own, and I’m very proud of Claire for bringing this issue at least to our attention. While we can debate how perfectly she does that, I prefer something over nothing.

2 years ago

“upper-class family in Westchester”. Yeah the median income in bronxville is over $200,000 a year, I’d say that’s a bit more than just “upper-class”. You do realize that just because you virtue signal about “eating the rich” that doesn’t in any way absolve you of your privilege. Instead of just whining into the technosphere, how about making some real change.

How do you know you understand your privilege? Did someone give you a privilege degree where you’re now qualified to speak to these issues? I’m not saying you can’t have these views or care about your low income friends, but presenting your ideas as if they have any authority is simply in bad faith.

2 years ago

Claire, I appreciate this article and know that it truly hits home. I do not see it as you “whitesplaining” anything because I see it more as you talking to your peers. We need more of that, in my opinion, because change comes from within. Thank you!

Eida Dekk
2 years ago

Claire, how dare you try to identify yourself as an ally to those of us who are food-insecure, which is a racist term formed by the continuingly oppressive nature of systemic racism at Vanderbilt. Why do you feel the need to whitesplain my struggle to me? Check your privilege, Claire(n).

Hungry at Vandy
2 years ago

This desperately needed to be said. I would love to see all the people I’ve been missing since March but when dining halls aren’t an option and hanging out in dorms is a (rightful) no-no, I’ve found myself literally budgeting who I can afford to see as every hangout seems to involve getting coffee or a meal.