Dining Services at the University of Connecticut will no longer provide take-out containers to students, except in limited circumstances in the upcoming spring semester.
With the pandemic in decline, the university is trying to return to some of its pre-pandemic ways, such as eating at the dining halls, according to university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz. The university operates with the assumption that students will eat in the dining halls where they get their food.
“Providing take-out containers on a broader basis was an appropriate and helpful temporary measure when the pandemic required more social distancing and limited the ability to provide in-person dining,” Reitz said in an email. “However, it’s now appropriate to return to more regular operations, both because of the strong vaccination rates on campus and safety measures, and because UConn’s food ordering procedures and related costs are predicated on typical consumption on site.”
Many students on campus expressed the need for take-out containers because of their disability, work schedule or other reasons. Michelle Shavnya, a fifth-semester speech, language and hearing sciences major, voiced her confusion on Reddit about the decision. She also seeks to garner support for a petition after the Dean of Students sent out a campus-wide email on Nov. 12 about the change.
Shaynya was motivated to create this petition because she believes the decision doesn’t correlate with the university’s COVID-19 policies and because she’s seen many students choosing take-out containers in the dining hall over the course of the semester, which indicates that it is a popular and beneficial option.
“My issue lies with the fact that we’re remaining in orange, which presupposes that COVID is still a significant enough threat to keep indoor masking, while also forcing students to dine indoors where their masks will be removed for a long duration of time in a packed dining hall,” Shavnya said in an email. “Many of my friends really like [takeout containers], and whenever I go to the dining hall I see a large number of students with takeout containers. That suggests they are beneficial to students so taking them away would have a negative impact on many.”
Shavnya’s pre-petition survey garnered 51 responses within 24 hours. Since the spring semester is fast approaching, she chose to create the petition on Change.org rather than wait for more responses. On Thursday night, the petition had 174 signatures.
“I promoted my survey on YikYak since I know many students use that app. I’d also like to make a Reddit post with a link to the Change.org petition and maybe post it on YikYak a few more times at different points of the day so students who didn’t see the post yet can still sign if it’s an issue they feel passionate about,” Shavnya said.
After completing a detailed PowerPoint presentation, her next step is to schedule a meeting with the Dean of Students, Dr. Eleanor JB Daugherty, or any other representative she is directed to.
“I will email Dr. Daugherty soon, explaining how I feel and the fact that I’d like to set up a meeting with her. In case she directs me to someone else, I’m happy to talk to any other member(s) of the university administration,” Shavnya said. “In my survey, a few students expressed interest in attending such a meeting, so I will be in touch with them to see if they’re still interested in going.
Abbey Engler, the vice president of Diversability, similarly feels that the university remaining in code orange but removing the takeout option not only sends mixed messages to students, but also negatively impacts students with disabilities in particular.
“Since our campus is still in code orange, administration is sending the message that the coronavirus is still a threat on campus. Especially for immunocompromised students, our orange status sends the message to them that the campus isn’t safe yet, so therefore they should not be eating in dining halls,” Engler said in an email. “In addition, students that don’t have access to a formal diagnosis for various reasons will face additional barriers to gaining access to food.”
Through Diversability, an organization advocating for disability rights on campus, Engler emphasizes giving takeout container access to all students in order to remove pressure and allow students to have privacy when it comes to their disabilities.
“I have spoken to individuals with eating disorders who shared that, without the takeout containers, it will be much harder for them to continue their journey in building a positive relationship with food. Yes, we could give people with eating disorders permission to get take out containers,” Engler said, “but that places undue burden on them to share deeply personal information every time they eat. By making take out containers accessible to all, we remove barriers to access for people with disabilities as well.”
To Engler, having a selective policy for take-out containers leads to students constantly needing to prove and discuss their disability with dining hall workers, who she alleges assume those students are lying to get a container.
“Dining hall staff regularly question accommodations and don’t believe students with disabilities. This is, to put it bluntly, ableist. When people, such as my friend, who need the most support accessing food are walking out of dining halls without it because of the poor treatment they’ve received, we know we have a problem. But all of that could be easily avoided with takeout containers,” Engler said.
Engler’s friend, a UConn student who wishes to remain anonymous when describing their dining experience, said recovering from a 15-year eating disorder has been made harder by needing to continuously answer questions about their disorder, being treated with suspicion when using multiple containers or bringing their own.
“Every time I go there, I get questioned. One time when I requested my accommodations, a dining hall employee threatened me saying ‘I wrote down your name and if it turns out you don’t have these accommodations, there will be repercussions,’ the anonymous student said.
“The fact that dining services force us to have a plan when we’re on campus, then doesn’t accommodate us is deeply problematic. If takeout containers were to remain accessible to everyone, it would be the best thing to relieve my burden and what statistics say is about 1/5 women and 1/10 men like me.”
Dining halls are also often loud and busy locations on campus, making them obstacles for people who are neurodivergent, Engler explained.
“When a neurodivergent person is overstimulated by noise, crowds, they freeze, experience fight or flight reflexes, and are generally in distress,” Engler said. “If we had takeout containers, those people would be able to minimize their exposure to things that overstimulate them and protect their mental wellness.”