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Stratifying Stanford one sandwich at a time

For questionable reasons, Stanford chose to close one of students’ most beloved campus eateries, Ike’s, last year and replace it with an additional RD&E cafe. Citing RD&E’s inefficiency, wastefulness and inflated prices, a hefty group of protesters assembled to denounce the decision. But, despite RD&E’s numerous flaws, one central characteristic of the organization makes this decision one we should favor: RD&E locations are free for students on meal plans.

At Stanford, where the majority of students come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, we tend to neglect the low-income perspective. For those of us who have never experienced poverty, it’s easy to forget that for many students, buying a sandwich from Coupa for lunch may not be feasible. But even when we do recognize this economic disparity, it’s sometimes hard to identify the consequences.

Unfortunately, these consequences are far from trivial. With eating being such an integral part of our socialization, productivity and health, especially in college, it’s no surprise that many low-income students identify eating alone in dining halls as a particularly lonely memory.  Because of the severe health consequences associated with loneliness, reducing class stratification on campus and, consequently, the isolation felt by low-income students, is a crucial part of maintaining student mental and physical health.

On campus, there are a total of 33 eateries, only eight of which are RD&E-owned and thus accept meal plan dollars. Although for most, the difference between a free lunch and one that costs $8 may not be significant, for others, the difference is dramatic. Since the cost of meal plans are incorporated into tuition, which is often reduced or eliminated entirely for low-income students, using meal plan dollars usually does not impose a financial burden. Paying out of pocket, on the other hand, can easily be economically impossible. Thus, students who can afford to pay for their lunch have over four times as many non-dining hall lunch options as their less wealthy peers.

While it’s clearly impossible, not to mention unreasonable, for Stanford to completely protect low-income students from economic hardship, they could certainly take steps to improve their experiences. Expanding the scope of RD&E to include all eateries, or simply providing students on financial aid with dining credit, usable at all on campus locations, could greatly expand the lunch options available to those who cannot normally afford to eat outside of RD&E. There are countless ways to alleviate low-income students’ financial burden when it comes to campus dining, but maintaining our current system is not one. Doing so will only continue to stratify students into those who can show up every day to class with a Starbucks coffee in hand, for example, and those who cannot.

These solutions are clearly not perfect. Students in Ike’s protests were correct to point out the numerous flaws embedded within RD&E, most notably their inflated prices for those not on meal plans, something that is completely unacceptable. Providing dining credit to students is similarly not ideal. On top of being a difficult task, it may make same low-income students uncomfortable. But regardless of the saliency of these flaws, the destratification potential of ensuring students are able to eat anywhere on campus makes trying to do so imperative.

Although the administration must play an integral role in improving campus eating culture, there are also a number of things that we as students can do to ensure we do not actively socially isolate our low-income peers.

When suggesting places to eat to a friend, either include at least one location that takes meal plan dollars, or for those who aren’t on meal plans — suggest eating at your house or swiping them into a dining hall. When it comes to larger groups of friends, classmates or members of a student group, it may be necessary to only suggest such places. Since costly locations, like Coupa, CoHo and Starbucks, tend to be more desirable, it may be hard for low-income students to express their desire to avoid these locations without being drowned out by the majority. Granted, these types of alterations to our behavior are inconvenient, but they are essential in order to ensure that low-income students are not forcibly isolated.

Unfortunately, the actions of students at elite universities across the country do just that. And Stanford is no exception. For example, on Friday nights, many CS section leaders get together for dinner at Treehouse. Although this isn’t a required event, and not all section leaders attend, those who wish to attend but cannot for financial reasons are significantly disadvantaged. Small thoughtless decisions such as these can play an integral role in the experiences of low-income students on campus.

Working to improve economic equity is not always easy. But having an economically diverse student body is futile if the only thing it achieves is stratification on campus. If we truly value such diversity, we must work to make sure that students of all classes, not just the upper class, have access to the same resources.

Contact Elena Marchetti-Bowick at elenamb ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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