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.