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The truth about dining dollars: Administration force-feeds mandatory meal plan

By Inae RurupSpecial to the Chronicle

Hofstra, I have some secrets to spill.

Last spring, Residential Programs sent a small number of students emails saying that come fall 2013, the meal plan would no longer be optional. I found out through word of mouth that the people who got those emails were the only ones who knew that this major policy change was coming.

Something wasn’t right. I emailed the sender and asked to meet with her in person. She was kind, but there was nothing she could do to change the policy. She told me to speak to the head of dining services, Dennis Lestrange, who said his hands were tied but that he’d send my name to his boss for consideration of an exemption.

Canceling my meal plan had been the best decision I’d made at Hofstra. It opened up the door to cooking, which I learned to love, and it also freed up the majority of what I had been paying out of pocket every semester. I was so relieved not to have to scrape by with nothing in my bank account just to keep affording school.

Countless meetings with countless administrators later, nothing was being done. No help was on its way, nobody was listening, and most students still didn’t know what was going on. So we, the students who did know, arranged our own meetings. We started planning ways to fight this bogus infringement of our rights. Our reasons for not accepting the meal plan weren’t important. What was important was having a choice. When Hofstra signed the contract for a five-year extension of Lackmann Culinary Services, they forfeit our right to choose. Not only without asking us, but without even telling us.

I won’t go into detail about the number of health code violations Lackmann has received at other schools, or the way Dutch Treats is notorious for selling expired food. But I will say that one of the reasons they gave for changing the policy was that so few students rejected buying a meal plan that it didn’t make much difference anyway.

That felt like a personal blow. What about me? What about graduation? What about my investment into this institution that didn’t seem to care one ounce for my well being, as long as they got that extra $850 out of me, which, besides, wasn’t that much anyway? Just because students had purchased meal plans didn’t mean they weren’t angry about losing their choice in the matter.

We started a petition on Facebook called “Students Against Mandatory Dining Plan Policy,” which reached close to 900 signatures – well over the number of people without meal plans. People cared, and there was growing momentum. The problem was, summer vacation was coming quickly, finals were in sight, and nobody had time to start rallying.

We attended the Town Hall meeting and voiced our discontent. They fed us the same lines about the change not affecting many students, the fact that the kitchens weren’t suitable for students cooking (ironic), and that there were more than enough options for anyone to eat campus food, regardless of dietary restrictions.

And then, when we didn’t let up, something unexpected happened. Stuart Rabinowitz apologized. Red-faced, head in hands, he said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He admitted that they should have handled it better and that they should have told students about it, but the contract was signed, and there was nothing he could do to change that.

I wish you could see how fast the dining service administrators flocked to us after the meeting was over. They promised us all sorts of things: a vegan “clean” room, where no food would ever be contaminated, better staff training so we’d stop finding meat in vegetarian options. It all sounded wonderfully made-up. They were clearly desperate to appease us, but totally unwilling to consider what we’d asked: exempt the students who don’t want it, exempt the students who can’t eat the food, exempt the students who are graduating next year anyway. They had said the number of students was “so small it didn’t make much difference,” but it made enough of a difference that they wouldn’t let our money go.

Before school let out, a former student met with vice president for facilities and operations Joe Barkwill about the possibility for meal plan exemptions. They came to an agreement that Hofstra would allow a small list of students exemptions as long as it was kept quiet and the Facebook petition was shut down.

My name was on that “list,” something I tried to explain to Michael Ogazon, to whom Barkwill referred me when I asked him about it over the summer. I was trying to make sure that my money would be refunded once I got to school, because that was it. I had no more left.

I was wrong, of course. I put my faith in people who had expressed only the shallowest desire to fix the situation, and who had made promises in words that were never written down so that they could never be held to them. I hate to put it that way, but that’s the way it was. Their replies to my emails were brief and indifferent. I sensed that I was irritating them with all my questions, but I didn’t understand what had happened to that agreement.

Early in fall I had a meeting with Barkwill, Ogazon, and vice president for student affairs Sandy Johnson, to address the issue. Barkwill never came. We sat at the table, Ogazon, Johnson, and I, they with their clipboards and I with my hands empty. I remember feeling so certain that I could persuade them into giving me a break. My arguments were valid, and I was ready to explain everything; there was no way they wouldn’t understand.

But what happened was not at all a discussion about the meal plan – it was a gigantic waste of time. They offered the same lines about how great the food was, and tried making small talk about where they ate and their daily coffee routines. Every time I tried to ask a question, they diverted the conversation in such a way that I wasn’t even a part of it anymore. It was like watching people pretend to be friends. They were just acting for the sake of me sitting in front of them. I was flabbergasted that they didn’t respect me enough to even address the reason why I was sitting right there in front of them, and by the fact that they were so intent on distracting me from my own intentions, that they were willing to waste their own time chattering about how popular fresh juice bars are.

I was trying to be polite and patient, but truthfully, I was so angry and insulted that I was also trying not to cry. And then I did. I told them I had no more money left and that the cost of the cheapest meal plan was more than I could handle. It was more than I could make at my work-study job, and there was no way I’d save up enough for tuition in the spring. Johnson told me that I couldn’t be exempt, because it simply wasn’t fair to everyone else. I had been sitting there all that time believing they were the ones in the wrong for renewing the contract and editing out our freedom, and there she was blaming me for asking to be the exception to the rule. She made me feel like I was being selfish. And for a while, she had me fooled.

But while I was still sobbing. I told her about students getting food poisoning, and how my roommate had once found a band-aid in her meal. She didn’t say, “That’s terrible,” or “I can’t believe that.” She said, “Well that could happen anywhere. If you or I (she said it as if we were part of some special elite) were at a 5-star restaurant, and our food came and there was a band-aid in it, well, we wouldn’t go back there.”

I calmed down enough to thank them for meeting with me, and I left. They didn’t shake my hand, or apologize, or act with any of the professionalism I’ve come to expect from adults here at Hofstra. I left feeling so discouraged that I gave up on the whole thing.

I’m not saying that they aren’t good people. But I am saying that what they did was messed up, and I wish they had taken responsibility for it. But they didn’t. And that’s why I’m telling you.

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