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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Opinion: AU’s changing meal plans go against student mutual aid efforts

The University has shown a lack of care for its food-insecure students

The following piece is an opinion and does not reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff. All opinions are edited for grammar, style and argument structure and fact-checked, but the opinions are the writer’s own.

After student-led mutual aid efforts to share meal swipes benefited a multitude of students over the past few years, American University has entirely changed its meal plans to make it harder for students to share food. This harms food-insecure students and adds to the ever-growing financial burden that some students face. 

In April of 2023, @aumealswipemutualaid, a “student created and sustained mutual aid network for meal swipes,” popped up on my Instagram timeline, advertising a mutual aid program, designed by and for students to give and take meal swipes from one another as needed. 

Soon after the account’s creation, it became clear that it was helping people. People with extra swipes commented under a pinned Instagram post to offer them to other students. I immediately saw this system becoming a form of protest against the school. When the University wanted to limit meal swipe donations to five, students decided to do the work to help food-insecure students themselves.

The University seemed to recognize this form of protest, too. For the 2023-24 school year, it updated the meal plans to be centered around the dining hall. It also stipulated a specific amount of guest swipes, which allow holders of meal plans to bring guests into TDR.

Though the most extensive meal plan, which costs $3,605, allows for 10 guest swipes and technically doubles the limit of five donations, participating in mutual aid for other students is much less accessible. 

All first and second-year students living on campus are required to have a meal plan. Students could previously share meal swipes easily in both the dining hall and other campus dining options. During the 2022-2023 school year, meal plans consisted of a set number of swipes that could be used anywhere. 

The plans this year stipulate that TDR and meal exchanges are separate. Previously, students would get as many as 175 swipes in a semester, and no matter how many they had left at the end of a given semester, the swipes did not roll over. Therefore, participating in meal swipe mutual aid benefited all parties involved. 

Now, it seems as if the University has gotten greedy. Whether or not it was aware of the mutual aid Instagram account, it has made an intentional move to stifle student mutual aid and pull in as much money as possible.

College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Devon Benaroya created the meal swipe mutual aid account. They agree that the University has prioritized profit over food accessibility for students.

“[The administration was] aware that every year there is a surplus of unused meal swipes, but they took little to no action to help redistribute those resources as their goal is to make a profit on student meal plans,” Benaroya said.

Benaroya made the account to work around this inaction, and they acknowledge that the shift to TDR-centered meal plans allows the University to make an even higher profit while making food sharing less feasible. 

The price of tuition at AU, like at many other institutions across the country, is becoming increasingly inaccessible. Since 2013, every school year except 2021-22 has come with an increase in tuition. Disallowing students to share a basic necessity that is ultimately required for student success shows a lack of care for students.

Additionally, AU is centering the dining hall in meal plans while there are “about 100 less seats” in TDR because of construction. In April 2024, “TDR will close to begin phase two of the renovations to ensure that all work is completed in time to reopen for the fall 2024 semester.”

Not only has this lowered the quality of TDR food, but it makes going to the now overcrowded dining hall an overwhelming experience that may impact the mental health of both students and workers.

For all of the moves that AU is making against its food-insecure students by updating meal plans in the aforementioned ways, on top of the questionable quality of the dining hall that these plans center, the University should be making options for these students much clearer. 

Many college students are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and AU should advertise this as an option while exempting students from meal plan requirements when using food stamps would be more affordable.

Furthermore, The Market, AU’s food pantry that offers “free groceries and limited personal-care items to all students in need,” should be advertised more thoroughly. When the meal plans were entirely swipe-based, students should have been able to donate as many swipes as possible to the pantry, but AU did not allow this because that would mean giving up profits to benefit underprivileged students.

“When the mutual aid network was more active, I got messages from the Market staff sharing that they were thankful that something effective was actually being done about student hunger,” Benaroya said. “The fact that the school-sponsored food pantry is reliant on student organizing to feed everyone who expresses need represents a failure on AU’s part to combat food insecurity.”

The option to donate meal swipes and Eagle Bucks to The Market has been closed since the fall 2022 semester. The only options for donation now are monetary donations that students should not be expected to make.

When the AU changemakers who are “activists” and “advocates” make an effort to support their fellow students, how will the University react next?

Quinn Volpe is a sophomore in the School of Communication and Kogod School of Business and a columnist for The Eagle. 

This article was edited by Alana Parker, Jelinda Montes and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Julia Patton.

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