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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Lookback on Dartmouth Dining

Dartmouth Dining has undergone significant transformations throughout its history, from eliminating College-provided provisions to modern-day innovations informed by student feedback.

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This article is featured in the 2024 Commencement & Reunions special issue.

Since its founding in 1769, Dartmouth has grappled with a key question: How should the College feed its students? From an institution without meal plans to modern Dartmouth Dining — marked by 13 on-campus offerings and ongoing student dissatisfaction — Dartmouth’s dining scene has evolved significantly over the years.

The Dartmouth looked into the rich history, and uncertain future, of Dartmouth Dining. While meal options on campus continue to evolve, the one constant has been the mission of dining, which not only provides sustenance but also serves as a core element of the college experience. 

A College Without Dining 

According to “DBA or Swipe: An Exploration of the Perceived Value of Service Labor on Dartmouth’s Campus” — a Dartmouth Libraries project by former Historical Accountability student research fellow Londyn Crenshaw ’22 — the College has not always provided students with meal provisions. In her work, Crenshaw includes a 1774 letter from New Hampshire Gov. John Wentworth to Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock describing College-provided nutrition as “extremely bad” and “alarm[ing to] parents.” Shortly afterward, Dartmouth stopped providing meals for its students altogether, leading students to rely on community-organized eating clubs, local taverns and home cooking for meals. While 18th century students found ways to sustain themselves, Sarah Young ’25 said today’s dining landscape — characterized by a lack of independent food sources — would make the past system untenable for many current students.

“[I] would go hungry without Dartmouth’s dining options because I don’t have a kitchen right now,” Young said.

Birth of the Class of 1953 Commons

In 1901, the Dartmouth Dining Association began as an eating club in the newly established Commons in College Hall — located at the Collis Center today — which served as the primary dining hall. The Commons offered several locally grown or sourced food options — including wild game — and reigned in popularity for several decades, according to Crenshaw’s research. The Commons fell out of favor as the College’s primary dining location in 1937 when Thayer Dining Hall opened, offering increased options and meeting the needs of a greater number of students. While dining options expanded with Thayer, the offerings were not always top-notch: according to Crenshaw’s research, employees at Thayer used instant and frozen foods as laborers became increasingly more expensive to hire. Thayer underwent several renovations from the 1940s to 1976 to address out-of-date building systems and a lack of accessibility, according to Crenshaw’s research.

Toward the end of the 20th century, the Dartmouth Dining Association rebranded to become what it is today — Dartmouth Dining Services. In 1992, thanks to a $12 million gift from the Class of 1953, the College renovated Thayer into the Class of 1953 Commons. The updated dining hall began construction in the summer of 2010 and opened to students in the fall of 2011, and remains the primary dining hall to this day.

Expansions and Adaptations

In 1979, Collis Cafe was the first of Dartmouth’s secondary dining locations to open on campus, according to Dartmouth News. A number of other options have sprouted up on campus in recent years, including the Courtyard Cafe in the early 1980s, according to Dartmouth Dining Service Supervisor Chris Magliola, Novack Cafe in 2000, Ramekin in 2020 and the Fern Coffee and Tea Bar, Back of the Napkin and the Cafe@Baker in 2022. The Class of 1953 Commons Pavilion employee Stephen Tisdale said these additional dining locations provide a way to “meet the needs” of “busy students.”

“Over [the years,] the amount of students has increased, and there’s always mouths to feed,” Tisdale said. “The focus has always been on taking care of students.”

Just as Dartmouth Dining has grown, the system has also faced challenges. According to past reporting by The Dartmouth, the COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges for dining — leading the College to implement safety protocols such as food delivery, expanded takeout options and the utilization of outdoor spaces for dining. According to Dartmouth Dining associate director Deb Scanlon, students in quarantine were able to dine alone by wearing a mask and taking their meals to go. For meal plan holders living at the Summit on Juniper off-campus apartments without access to private transportation, Dartmouth Dining arranged meal delivery to their locations, Scanlon added.

“[The COVID-19 pandemic] was a really difficult time,” Scanlon said. “We had safe areas downstairs in Sarner where they were able to [pick up] food [to] take back to their dorms.” 

Dartmouth Dining has also adapted to a changing digital landscape. According to Scanlon, Dartmouth Dining has utilized technology to aid the dining experience in recent decades. Approximately five years ago, Dartmouth Dining launched a mobile application that allows students to view menus, check nutritional information and provide feedback in real time. According to Magliola, for the last 10 years, Dartmouth Dining has utilized the “Text and Tell” program, a digital feedback option that allows customers to text their thoughts about dining — from requests for specific food items to compliments of staff members. 

According to Scanlon, student feedback has led Dartmouth Dining to expand ’53 Commons’ offerings, such as Herbivore, the dining hall’s plant-based station. Scanlon said feedback also contributed to the development of A9, an allergen-safe dining station launched in the fall of 2023.

The Class of 1953 Commons Pavilion counter service employee Bonnie Emery also pointed to Late Night dining as an evolving element of Dartmouth Dining. Late Night was previously located in Collis Cafe before being shut down in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. The service reopened briefly in January 2021 in the Class of 1953 Commons and on weekends in November 2022 at the Courtyard Cafe. The Courtyard Cafe iteration closed, and Late Night reopened — operating from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., seven days a week — at ’53 Commons in January 2023. 

The Dartmouth Dining Community

In 2022, Dartmouth undergraduate student workers for Dartmouth Dining formed the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth in response to poor working conditions amplified by the pandemic. In February 2023, SWCD members voted to authorize a strike after the College rejected their proposal, which included a $21 hourly base wage and new mental health and sick pay policies. The College verbally accepted the proposal before the beginning of the strike, which stopped it from occurring. This was the first time a contract at Dartmouth included a clause that formally recognized mental health pay as an issue to be addressed, according to past reporting by The Dartmouth.

According to Crenshaw’s research, service employees at Dartmouth first organized a Dining Workers Union in 1966 out of a sense of connection between dining workers and students due to the frequency of their interactions. 

“It’s less likely that a student will have a one-on-one conversation multiple times with the same custodian, or grounds worker, or painter, but the student may eat at the same dining hall stations day in and day out and begin to form relationships with these people,” Crenshaw wrote.

Scanlon added that patrons and dining workers “become family” over the years.

“I might not know everyone’s name, but I know you love strawberry shortcake or your favorite food,” she said. 

Tisdale said that, in the 15 years he has worked here, Dartmouth Dining employees have received better benefits than other food service industry locations he has worked for, from paid time off to parental and bereavement leave.

“The benefits, the stability [and] the way they took care of us during [the COVID-19 pandemic] was very good,” Tisdale said.

Emory said her favorite part about working for Dartmouth Dining is “getting to know the kids.” Magliola added that being a part of students’ lives for four years and seeing many of them on an “almost daily basis” is an “impact[ful]” part of the job.

Looking Forward

At Dartmouth Student Government’s weekly meeting on April 7, Dartmouth Dining director Jon Plodzik announced a proposal for a revised version of the Ivy Unlimited meal plan. This plan would increase the dining dollars allotted to each student on the unlimited plan, the value of meal swipes and the locations they were accepted, but also the overall cost of the plan. According to past reporting by The Dartmouth, all “residential students” would be mandated to have some version of the plan. Following backlash, Plodzik later said the College would likely not mandate the revised unlimited plan.

Lucy Coleman ’26 said “agency should be with the students” when deciding new dining plans.

“Choices shouldn’t be made for people,” Coleman said. “People are wise enough to know what’s best for them and their health and how they would like to manage that.”

Students have expressed smaller changes they would like to see in Dartmouth’s dining options.

Arianna Graham-Gurland ’27 said she would “love to see more fresh fruits and vegetables, especially berries” offered at all Dartmouth Dining locations.

“I definitely always love Italian Night [because] they have berries and grapes,” she said. “I know they’re more expensive, but it makes a huge difference in how I feel about the food I’m eating.”

According to past reporting by The Dartmouth, Dartmouth Dining will continue to respond to student needs and adapt to challenges.

“We just enjoy serving the students,” Magliola said.