A look inside Fall 2021 dining

In response to recent complaints about its Fall 2021 offerings and restrictions, Campus Dining addressed student concerns and announced changes for the upcoming semester.

local java

Anjali Chanda

Local Java in Sarratt Student Center, as photographed on Feb. 5, 2021. (Hustler Multimedia/Anjali Chanda)

Vanderbilt Campus Dining recently announced new offerings for the upcoming semester as well as changes regarding operation hours, semester location closures and meal swipe policies. These changes faced backlash from students concerned about meal plan flexibility, prompting Campus Dining to address these concerns. 

Per Sean Carroll, director of marketing and communications, staffing shortages have necessitated many dining changes; however, he said this semester will be reminiscent of a “normal” semester.

The Nashville area has been impacted by an acute shortage of workers in the hospitality industry,” Carroll said in an Aug. 9 email to The Hustler. “Vanderbilt Campus Dining has not been immune to this trend. As it stands now, our operations will be running nearly at full capacity, with minor changes to start the semester.”

VSG is gathering student feedback via comments on Campus Dining Instagram posts and through an online form posted on their Instagram. They plan to present these perspectives during their Aug. 13 meeting with Campus Dining.

Per Student Body Vice President Kayla Prowell, VSG has partnered with the Multicultural Leadership Council (MLC) to ensure a diverse range of voices are heard prior to their meeting. She said that VSG will keep students informed of their interactions with campus dining on social media.  

Student dining consultants also plan to take action to advocate for students throughout the semester.

“I talk to anyone and everyone about what they think about campus food,” sophomore dining consultant Hannah Dresner said. “I want to hear their opinion because that’s one of the most important things to me, making sure that every single voice is heard.”

Changes to dining operations 

chart of Rand hours
Screenshot of Rand operation hours for Fall 2021, as taken on Aug. 11, 2021. (Hustler Staff/Charlotte Mauger)

In Fall 2021, dining halls will have modified days and hours of operation. Notable changes include Rand not offering dinner and being closed on weekends. 2301—which will only be available for mobile pre-ordering via the GET app—will be closed after lunch on Fridays and will reopen for Sunday dinner. Kissam Kitchen will only be open for dinner and McTyeire will only be available to residents. Both The Pub and Local Java will be closed for the semester. 

Referencing Rand’s “historically low” popularity for dinner and on weekends as well as the recent demolition of Carmichael Towers East, Carroll said that main campus’s dining offerings will adequately fulfill students’ needs even with Rand’s modified hours.

“Our team is confident that capacity on both main campus and on the Martha Rivers Ingram Commons will ensure open and hassle-free access to a wide variety of dining options,” Carroll said.

In contrast to the 2020-21 school year, dining halls will be “full-service” in Fall 2021, offering indoor seating and food and beverage options. Zeppos Dining Hall will open indoor seating for the first time in its “all-you-care-to-eat” dining facility, with a capacity of approximately 120 students. 

Regarding portion size concerns, Carroll said that students can “always” request more food if they are still hungry. In light of student worries around food options and availability, Carroll encouraged students to access Campus Dining’s online menu to find options supporting their individual needs. 

“We take very seriously concerns around food insecurity, disordered eating, and other associated mental health aspects of food, and we’ve worked hard to create a meal plan that meets the needs of all students on campus,” Carroll said. 

Meal swipes

An Aug. 6 post on Campus Dining’s Instagram announced new Flexible Meal Swipes for Fall 2021. It detailed that students could use one meal swipe per hour; thus, the 2020-21 maximum limit of five swipes per day, which reduced traffic during the pandemic, would no longer apply. The post accumulated 82 comments, many stating that this plan was actually less flexible compared to previous years. Students had previously been able to use multiple swipes per hour and relied on this to plan meals ahead and fully utilize their meal plans. 

“Yet another decision that prioritizes profit over student wellbeing,” one comment with 62 likes said. “Limiting meal swipes to once every hour is just another way you [the university] can ensure you will profit off of meal swipes we don’t use because we don’t have time to go to the dining halls/munchie marts multiple times a day. You’re creating unnecessary obstacles for us to use all of the meal swipes in a meal plan that we pay for.”

In an Aug. 9 email to The Hustler, Campus Dining reported that they modified its swipe limit in response to student concerns. 

“Based directly on recent student feedback, Campus Dining will further enhance swipe flexibility to allow students to maximize use of their meal plans; students will now be able to swipe up to three times per 60-minute period,” the email stated.

Prowell was pleased Campus Dining was responsive to student complaints about the swipe limit. 

“I think it’s great because students are expressing their voices and their voices are hopefully being heard,” Prowell said. “Hearing that is a great step in the right direction.”

Campus Dining had shared another post on Aug. 2 concerning Munchie Marts. It stated that “Munchies are fully open again!” and there will be a variety of sandwiches, wraps, salads and fresh meals available. However, students brought attention to how the post neglected to mention that snacks will only be available via Commodore Cash and Meal Money this year, not with a swipe as they were pre-COVID. This omission garnered backlash in the comments, citing concerns about food insecurity for low-income students and a lack of options for those with dietary restrictions as a result of the change. 

Prowell built on the thoughts she expressed in a comment on the post that garnered 196 likes in an interview with The Hustler. She mentioned how Vanderbilt’s commitment to financial aid is contradicted by its lack of consideration for all students’ dining needs.

“I think my biggest fear is the food insecurity that we have on campus because we have a lot of students that have dietary issues [and] we have a lot of students that have eating disorders,” Prowell said. “These are things that are almost certainly going to be exacerbated because of these new policies.”

Dresner stated that she and the other dining consultants specifically advocated during a Spring 2021 meeting for all Munchie Mart items, including snacks, to be available with a meal swipe. She explained that many Munchie snacks serve as allergen-friendly meal options and that the policy creates a divide between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“This is exactly what we didn’t want,” Dresner said. “We argued for the complete opposite to happen.”

The shift in what can be purchased with a meal swipe from Munchie Marts started in Fall 2020; however, Campus Dining clarified that the change was not COVID-19 related but, instead, was a result of health considerations.

“In 2020, Campus Dining shifted the meal swipe redemption policy for Munchie Marts from an inconsistently-enforced swipe allowance to a structured meal plan formula,” the email stated. “This approach was designed by our Executive Chef and Registered Dietitian, in accordance with USDA MyPlate nutrition guidelines.” 

Campus Dining elaborated that they will ensure there will be a variety of options, including vegan and allergen-friendly alternatives, for all meals offered at Munchie Marts. 

Meal plan changes

Another area of concern for students was the increased cost of the meal plan for the 2021-22 year. Similar to last year, a 21-swipe plan is required for on-campus first-years, a 19-swipe plan is required for sophomores and juniors and a 14-swipe plan is required for seniors. 

Before the 2020-21 school year, students were granted more flexibility in meal plan options as they became upperclassmen. Fall 2019 marked the first time on-campus seniors were required to purchase a meal plan with an 8-swipe minimum and on-campus juniors were required to have at least a 14-swipe plan. The senior plan increased to 14 swipes and the junior plan to 19 swipes in 2020. The sophomore meal plan requirement of 19 swipes has not changed since Fall 2019 and first-years have consistently been on a 21-swipe plan throughout these changes. Per Dresner, there had been discussion of making the 21-swipe plan mandatory for every grade in Fall 2021, but she advocated against it as students have voiced concerns about not using all of their meal swipes.

The cost of the plan for first-years increased from $2,686 per semester for 2020-21 to $3,188 per semester this year and plans for sophomores, juniors and seniors similarly rose in cost approximately 18 percent. Campus Dining explained that meal plan rates are adjusted to reflect changes in food and operating costs. They also cap the annual increase in rates to not exceed that of housing, which is currently capped at four percent. 

“While rates may appear to have increased significantly from the 2020-2021 academic year, meal plan costs last year were prorated to reflect the abbreviated 13-week fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters,” the email stated. “The fall 2021 semester rate is consistent with Vanderbilt’s regular meal plan rate increase, which is based on the fluctuation of food and operating costs.”  

Mobile ordering and new offerings 

In an effort to improve upon the dining experience, Campus Dining is expanding its menu in Fall 2021. 

“The fall 2021 semester won’t simply be a reboot of 2019, as our chefs and managers have been working hard to bring enhancements to the dining program,” Carroll said.

Two new locations—Alumni Cafe and Rand Grab & Go Market—are designed to offer more flexibility to students. Both locations will have an assortment of sandwiches, wraps, sushi, salads, fresh meals and coffee. Suzie’s Espresso will also have new locations in Medical Research Building III and Featheringill Hall and will return to pre-COVID locations.

Highland Munchie Mart will be piloting a sushi station—Wasabi—which will offer freshly prepared sushi rolls, poke bowls and boba tea. Prior to Wasabi, VanTea—a student-run boba shop—brought back boba tea to Vanderbilt in Fall 2020 after the closure of Bamboo Bistro, which was replaced by Suzie’s Coffee Shop. 

Campus Dining will also be introducing the Chicken Shack, a fried chicken station. They are also piloting the Veggie Table, a fully vegan-friendly station available weekdays at Rand. Kissam Kitchen will be a fully gluten-free dining hall in Fall 2021.

The GET mobile app will continue to allow students to pre-order items. 2301 and Holy Smokes are the only two locations listed as having mobile order availability on the Campus Dining website, but only Holy Smokes will also be open for traditional dining. 

Taste of Nashville options will also be expanded to include Flatiron, Central BBQ, Grain & Berry Café and more.