September 26, 2021

WISE-ROJAS | Privilege Check: Saying Thank You at the Dining Hall

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As someone who recently started working for Cornell Dining, I feel compelled to pass on what I’ve learned. Cornell students should take the time to thank those who work in food service anywhere on campus, as the amount of work, planning and resources to keep facilities running is a privilege within itself. 

It’s normal not to like what food is being served at a dining hall. Between the options available to you, the way something is cooked and how your appetite constantly changes it’s nearly impossible for the dining hall to get it right every time. Sometimes, you open the Eatery app, only to find that no dining halls near you have your favorite pizza, and everything starts to feel a little gloomy. 

However, there’s a difference between not liking your options and using those experiences to make assumptions and generalizations about Cornell dining as a whole. Just because the menu doesn’t fit your specific desires doesn’t mean that “Cornell has bad food” or “[insert a dining hall here] never has good food” (these are loosely based on conversations among students I’ve overheard). 

There is a reason why Cornell Dining consistently ranks in the Princeton Review’s “top ten for best campus food among all colleges and universities in the country,” and it’s not just because of the Ivy-league label. While being prestigious, Cornell is a school that cares about hospitality (because, of course, the Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration ranks number 2 for “Best Hospitality and Hotel Management Schools in the World”). 

Wide Open Eats noted that Cornell’s “talented chefs, use fresh and eclectic ingredients, and ensure that plenty of the staff is certified as a professional foodservice handler.” Cornell Dining has a long list of accolades. The mixture of Cornell’s emphasis on hospitality and access to financial resources make a dining program of this caliber possible. 

All the awards may not seem like a big deal; nevertheless, food insecurity remains a significant problem on most college campuses. Forbes emphasizes how “a fall 2019 survey of nearly 167,000 students nationwide found that 39% of students at two-or four-year schools had experienced food insecurity in the last 30 days.” 

Additionally, a fall 2020 survey conducted jointly by Chegg, Swipe Out Hunger, and the Born This Way Foundation found that out of 1,000 undergraduates, “52% of students sometimes used off-campus food banks, while 30% used them monthly or more frequently. Thirty-five percent of students said their hunger had impacted their ability to study at some point.”

Meanwhile, at Cornell, “first-year and transfer students are required to have a meal plan and will be automatically enrolled in the Unlimited meal plan,” and “priced at what had been only a 14-meal-per-week meal plan level, the Unlimited Meal Plans are fully covered by financial aid for eligible students.” 

We are lucky. I think it’s easy to take this for granted, when you don’t think much about your food except for how it tastes. After all, you aren’t exchanging cash to get into a dining hall. Even though nothing is free, it feels like it is in the moment. It’s easy to forget about the time and resources that went into your food. 

You don’t seem to notice that every 30 minutes, the utensils you use to grab your food are swapped out for clean ones, with the old ones going to the dish room. You see employees carefully taking the food temperature, not noticing that this is done every hour to make sure none of the food goes bad, even a little bit. The food, somehow, magically replenishes itself. 

You see employees writing something but not caring to notice that these are detailed records of food temperatures. You see someone wipe down your table and flip the sanitation card over, likely not realizing that this person probably just cleaned ten tables before yours and will have dozens more to clean when the dining hall shuts down for the night, possibly working more than they expected. 

You probably think that working at a dining hall consists of sitting behind a counter, watching people get their food, then cleaning afterward. When it comes to Cornell Dining, it’s much more than that. Every food item is thought out. Every station is given extra food to replenish when the quantities are low. 

Meanwhile, chefs are constantly cooking, and other employees are washing hundreds of dishes around the clock. Some chefs go out of their way to make Halaal or Kosher meals for students upon request. Cornell Dining even won the Best Food Allergy Program award from AllerTrain. Cornell Dining also received an “A” for vegan offerings. Risley Dining Hall, a  gluten-free and nut-free dining hall on campus even has food that people who aren’t necessarily allergic to gluten enjoy, as well . 

This isn’t to say that Cornell Dining is perfect. Yeah, sometimes it’s crowded, and it’s annoying when the food you were waiting for runs out and there isn’t any more left. However, having access to an abundance of food as a college student is a huge privilege. BestColleges also echoes that since “many college students struggle to cover basic needs,” how “those who lack family support are especially likely to struggle to afford food, and report eating less, eating less healthy, and going hungry.” 

If anything, Cornell likely has a problem with food waste. As a matter of fact, The Daily Sun wrote a piece in 2017 detailing the extent of Cornell’s food waste; “Since 2014, Cornell Dining’s Student Sustainability Coordinators have been conducting personal food waste studies in dining halls on both North and West Campus.” Some of their findings discovered that freshmen wasted an average of 3.70 ounces per plate in fall 2016, followed by 3.04 ounces per student in Spring 2017. Considering that most colleges in the country are struggling to meet the dietary needs of all their students, Cornell seemingly has a problem with having too much food. 

The next time you get food, a smile, a thank you and a “how is your day going?” would make all the difference. Sometimes I would try to interact, and the student would ignore me, not realizing that I too am a student. I’m just playing a different role for a bit. Food service is already hard enough. Don’t forget that the people behind the counter are people, too, with lives and families, employed by a place with an abundance of resources to keep people fed.

Daniela Wise-Rojas ’25 is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Anything But MunDANIties runs every other Monday this semester.