Guest Editorial: Contra Downer

Corin Howland

Lawrence students have always had an antagonistic relationship with Downer Commons. Recently Downer has made it clear that the sentiment goes both ways. For some weeks now signs have been posted in each line of Downer asserting that students are to blame for the high cost of Downer meals. It’s true that student responses to the meal plan do raise the cost of running Downer, but blaming the students is irresponsible and misguided.
One of the signs condescendingly provides three aspects of rising food costs which Downer blames on the students. Let me address them one by one.
1: Eliminate Waste: “All you can eat does NOT mean all you can waste. You can always come back for seconds.”
I think we can all agree that waste is a problem, and in particular a problem in any dining service. However, most students don’t waste food just for kicks. I frequently am forced to waste food after I find out that whatever I’ve taken is, at least to me, inedible. Let’s be honest: the quality of food affects the amount you’re able to eat. Further, anyone who wants to eat in less than an hour is going to have trouble standing in line for food more than once, especially for popular or slow lines like pizza and stir-fry. But our meal plans force us to eat at Downer, whether or not we enjoy the food.
2: Eliminate Replacement Expenses: “It costs money to replace the teaspoons, mugs, etc. which seem to disappear.”
I don’t deny Downer’s disingenuous implication that students steal dinnerware. However, I suspect that the relatively high rate of theft is due in part to the perception that Downer “owes” the students more than it provides, because we pay so much for our mandatory meal plan. Let me emphasize that: mandatory.
3: Reduce Our Labor Expenses: “Remove the paper products from your own tray and place in the receptacles provided before placing your tray in the carts.”
This seems spurious to me. From what I’ve heard from friends who work at Downer, they already have considerable downtime, and they must stay until their shifts are over. Leaving napkins on trays, while perhaps irritating to the workers, is not losing Downer any money.
The other sign is similarly condescending: “If you were paying individually for each item you’ve taken, how much less would be on your plate?” I say, if I were paying individually for each item, there would be no food on my plate at all. At present, on the smallest meal plan, each meal I eat at Lawrence costs me about $9, breakfast, lunch, or dinner. For that price I could get healthier meals that I enjoy more from a restaurant and still have change left over. If I put that money toward groceries and was willing to cook, I could easily pay $1-2 for each meal, and still get far better fare. If I could opt out of paying for Downer via any means, it would be my first priority.
We are a residential campus, and it helps build the community to have a central place to take meals together. It’s nice to have a place you can go where you can just sit down and eat with friends, without having to take time to make the food yourself. However, I am not willing to be forced to pay nine dollars for a bowl of cereal and orange juice, or perhaps a plate of spaghetti with fake parmesan cheese and a soda, or some bread and cheese. I’d rather have a community based off of pleasant experiences with comrades than one based off of mutual hatred for the food we consume.