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The cost of eating at WU

“Let’s get lunch.” It’s a classic Duke student saying, along with “how are you?” And “good, how are you?” And while sometimes “lunch” is replaced by “dinner,” it’s seldom breakfast. Why? Because, especially after freshman year, almost no one eats breakfast at WU, if at all. Why? Because it’s so goddamn expensive—besides, who even eats breakfast, anyway? And when you start to think about scheduling breakfast dates, waking up earlier, balancing your virtual food point budget, and whether Mobile Order will even be working, it’s easier to just skip it than to play the breakfast game.

Food prices are rising all across the world; this is no secret, but I think every upperclassman has had the same shocked reactions when paying a few dollars more for the same meals we’ve purchased dozens of times. Yes, food plans have also increased, but not proportionally. On top of that, for some reason, the websites housing information about dining have disappeared from Google (and been moved into the depths of the new Student Affairs website, if you’re curious)—almost as though Duke wants to hide the fact that WU prices have increased up to 20%, whereas the dining plans have gone up by a whopping 4.3%. What gets me more than the increases themselves is the opacity surrounding them—there was no sort of announcement that meal prices would rise more than the usual small yearly incrementation.

Now, back to breakfast. Pre WU inflation/shrinkflation debacle, there were a couple other factors preventing the consumption of three square meals, beyond cost: coffee and sleep. Coffee isn’t a meal; we know this. But, if you’re someone who just needs that $5 iced latte before class and has only $24 of food points a day, you don’t have the budget for a $6 bacon, egg and cheese from Panera in the morning, regardless of whether you can wake up on time.

It becomes a matter of principle: when having to eat prepared dining hall food every day, which is loads pricier than cooking your own meals, paying more than the forced minimum to Duke Dining feels like a further swindle. For students on financial aid, unlike for housing—for which aid increases proportionally—you have to pay the difference for any plan larger than A. Rather than daily swipes which you either use or lose, the customizable digital money system adds an extra mental layer, complicating—perhaps unnecessarily—a basic human need. Once you have those food points, they can’t be changed back into USD; it’s virtual money, and difficult to think about in a tangible way.

By and large, students are left to their own devices to figure out how to get enough to eat within the confines we are provided. The way Duke’s upperclassman food plan works majorly contributes to a culture of ignoring breakfast, replacing meals with coffee, pushing off eating until work is done, and choosing the cheap option over the more desirable one, behaviors that are not only encouraged but often lauded in that toxic “suffering more than thou” way of bragging.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we have meal options beyond a Marketplace-style dining hall, but in that increase in quality of food we lose two things: a set eating schedule and a guarantee of people to eat your meals with. I’ll keep the “I studied abroad” tangent brief, but over the summer on the Duke in Oxford program, I effectively ate three meals a day, seven days a week, for six weeks with the same cohort of about 40 people. The food itself couldn’t hold a candle to WU, but the atmosphere helped create community faster than anything I’ve experienced while at Duke. As long as I walked the three minutes to the dining hall, I would see and converse with my peers; there were always things to talk about, and the shared experiences have led to me making some of my closest friends here. I imagine this is what Marketplace is supposed to do, although I couldn’t comment upon that, as it was takeout-only my freshman year.

WU seems impressive because of the many above par college dining options and the new, modern interior; however, these seemingly positive factors have malicious flipsides. WU can become a stressful place of infinite food choice (à la the Jam Study)—most people I know rotate between a few select favorites—and it can be scary walking up to a restaurant and not knowing what exactly the menu even is, let alone how much it’ll cost. In addition, the way the seating is arranged, you’re never going to sit by somebody new—WU is simply not big enough (and too many people use it as a library), nor is it set up in a way to encourage interactions with people you don’t already know; the inevitable, absurd levels of crowding deter many from eating at normal meal hours.

Since returning to Durham, I’ve made it a mission of mine to eat as many meals with other people as possible, but—since I’m dining at WU—this is no easy task. Between remembering which friends have what recurring conflicts and when, minimizing wasted time between commitments, seeing everyone as frequently as I would like, knowing which groups of people can mix, and adding every get-together to my Google Calendar, I’m forced into an obsessive juggling act. There isn’t really another way of doing it, but beyond killing two birds with one stone (eating and socializing), planned meals give me something to look forward to every day, and they make WU a friendlier place. This has only come with intense intentionality, though, and WU’s design makes that exponentially harder.

The way dining is set up gamifies the selection and purchase of food. As college students, we are perpetually “busy” and beyond impressionable; when food is something you have to intentionally think about, that extra brain space must come from somewhere. Especially here, where (arguably) healthy food is much more expensive (see: $16 salmon and vegetables vs $12 pizza) and fresh fruit is nowhere to be found, the cost increases of WU aren't just monetary, and they never were. The Brodhead Center is an award-winning dining hall, lauded for its choices, quality, and innovation; but hidden underneath the gilded facade are the pernicious impacts of a gamified, antisocial, abnormal dining hall culture that, on the surface, makes itself hard to complain about.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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