Last year, whenever I would bite into a Dough donut in Brooklyn, sip on some Eataly hot chocolate in the Flatiron District, or devour an arepa at Caracas Arepa Bar in the East Village, I knew that there was a hidden cost to my enjoyment: my meal plan. With either 15 or 19 meals per week already paid for, most Columbia first-years are paying for both their consumed meal and their forsaken meal at the dining hall when eating out. The excessive cost of eating out due to the meal plan adds exclusivity to New York City and restricts first-years from truly exploring the city. First-years are essentially punished for eating out and experiencing the city that attracted many of them to Columbia in the first place.
Columbia’s application requests a listing of concerts, shows, and cultural events the applicant attended in the past year. By doing so, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions is looking for candidates who will leave the Columbia “bubble” between 120th and 110th streets, who will partake in the cultural experiences that the city offers, which should supplement the education received on campus. As Columbians, we are expected to make the most out of our location, utilizing New York city as our off-campus classroom. We are taught not only how to be students, but also how to be cultured and worldly.
However, this is an unrealistic expectation for first-years, who are required to buy a large meal plan. The meal plan is not conducive to promoting education through life experience. In order to escape paying for two meals—the meal eaten out and the forsaken prepaid meal—we must be back for the 8 p.m. closing time of John Jay and Ferris, and we must limit our explorations, especially of restaurants.
Food is a medium for exploration and experience. Almost weekly, I went to Brooklyn for Smorgasburg, an artisan food market. I came for the food, I stayed and returned for the experience. Smorgasburg drew me to Bedford, and I fell in love with the area, wandering through the vintage clothing stores and boutiques. This wasn’t a rare occurrence for me: I’ve traversed the city in search of restaurants and have loved experiencing many of the city’s neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many of my peers cannot say the same, because they rarely leave the confines of Morningside Heights. The meal plan is a restriction limiting free movement around the city, chaining first-years to campus for meals.
Much of New York City culture is embedded within its food. You are not a true New Yorker until your first Shake Shack burger, Momofuku cookie, or Magnolia cupcake. These are iconic culinary staples of New York City for tourists and locals alike. To truly experience the city, such fares must be sampled.
A past and present city of immigrants, Manhattan offers the cultural experience that classes, especially those in the Global Core, aim to offer. Restaurants that offer ethnic food can be an active classroom, conveying the true essence of a culture—food. In New York, we are offered easy access to foreign cultures. Taste the Korean barbecue in Koreatown. Consume the fresh pasta in Little Italy. Sample the noodles and dumplings in Chinatown. Though geographically different from their origins, these Manhattan neighborhoods offer authentic food and culture.
Other neighborhoods offer present historic American immigrant culture. On the Lower East Side, I visited the neighborhood where my Jewish Russian grandfather grew up to experience history and culture through gastronomy. I ate the knishes and kugel typical of his upbringing, and through them, I truly got a glimpse into his life.
Removing first-year meal plan restrictions can only help Columbia. By instating a large, mandatory meal plan, Columbia is limiting our education, which should go beyond the classroom. Allocate the meal plan by semester rather than by week. Reduce the meal requirement. Make it not be required. Just, please, loosen the chains that tie first-years to campus and Morningside Heights.
The author is a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences sophomore.
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