Story | Sheriah Peries (they/she), Staff Writer
Photo Credits to Instagram Account @yncdininghalltea
Smaller portions, less flexibility and limited alternatives greet students this semester
As a new academic year dawns and the student body reluctantly returns to its daily routine of sleep deprivation, last minute readings, and Indomie-induced saline crashes, an old foe rises to beat the monotony: the dining hall.
Yale-NUS’ dining halls are the centre of the time-honoured traditions of democratic representation, a space where students gather together to sample what is generally subpar but edible food, before offering their opinions and engaging in healthier discourse than the menu options for the day about it. The dining halls have inspired the witty epithets of Instagram food critic yncdininghalltea, prompted mass student mobilisation in favour of larger portion sizes and spawned dubious gastronomical creations such as the panini press pizza, a personal favourite.
This year, it seems that the dining halls’ notoriety will continue.
Last semester, former Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Dave Stanfield announced that a new caterer would be servicing the Yale-NUS dining halls at Elm and Cendana from the beginning of this academic year. In July 2023, a follow-up email confirmed the new caterer to be Smorgasbord by Select Group, which also provides catering services to NUS dining halls, including those at NUSC and other residential halls.
Given the higher residential fees incurred by YNC students relative to NUS residential fees, the student body’s biggest concerns centred around whether there would be a noticeable difference between the services provided within our dining halls, with the latest SAO email update reassuring us that “The budget that we’ve allocated for each of your meals is much more than the average meal cost for NUS students, and as such, you should expect a higher quality dining experience”.
However, a week into the semester, expectations for a “higher quality dining experience” have been dwindling.
The most noticeable change between the current system and its predecessor, run by the SATS corporation, is the transition from a buffet style system to a set meal system. Under the buffet style system, students were provided four options each for a carbohydrate, protein, vegetable and supplementary dish, in addition to a free flow salad and fruit bar, and a panini press. Students could also access a Grab n’ Go option-either a sandwich or a wrap, along with a fruit and canned beverage- through vending machines at Cafe Agora, available outside of dining hall hours.
The current system does not allow students to access dishes outside of the set meal options, significantly limiting our choices. This is especially concerning for vegetarian students and those with other dietary concerns, such as gluten allergies. For example, vegetarian students who wish to consume eggs for added protein are not allowed the option to do so, leading to concerns surrounding their nutritional intake.
The Grab n’ Go options now consist of a single croissant or muffin with a juice carton for breakfast, hardly sufficient as a meal. And while we were informed that “Grab & Go will be available in the dining halls during all meal periods from Monday to Fridays”, at lunch today dining hall staff at Cendana informed me that there were no Grab n’ Go options available.
Additionally, portion sizes themselves have reduced, with students pointing out that only a single protein portion is available per tap. This is particularly disheartening considering previous student efforts to negotiate for larger protein quantities and portion sizes following similar issues with SATS, which resulted in students being allotted extra taps per meal.
The credit system has also been scrutinised for not allowing students to transfer unused meal taps to different meals, an established practice under the old provider that came in handy for students who were willing to forfeit breakfast for a heartier lunch or dinner. Given the non-transferability of taps and the requirement of extra meal credits for more protein, concerns that students may run out of taps later in the semester have surfaced, an issue that would particularly impact low-income and accessibility needs students who may struggle to supplement their nutritional intakes due to budgeting or accessibility constraints.
Despite its gathering power, I think it’s time to let students enjoy their meals in peace. While the food itself remains palatable, and the presence of halal menus,a more extensive salad bar, and longer dining hall hours is commendable, the fact remains that this is not a “higher quality dining experience” for many members of our community. Jokes about democracy aside, even if none of these policy changes affect you personally, they do affect your peers, your friends, your dining hall comrades.
Individual feedback must be sent through the NUS Dining Hall App, greatly diminishing the power that collective bargaining has provided in shaping fairer dining hall policies for us in the past. Alternative channels of feedback ought to be found, and hopefully used, to share our concerns and feedback. Whether or not today’s town hall will be one such avenue of communication remains to be seen.
The battle may be long and arduous, but it is worthwhile, and are we truly happier than when we gather together on YNC Forks and Spoons to bemoan our culinary fates?
Probably. Nevertheless, we prevail.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: email@example.com