The Hatchet had a great piece about the University's new J Street dining program, where freshman and sophomores have to spend a certain amount of their GWorld money ($700 per semester and $250 per semester, respectively) at J Street dining locations. If not spent, that money expires.
The article spoke to local restaurant owners who were losing profits to the program, and who are (ostensibly) not happy with it. Nor are many students happy with this unnecessary limitation on their dining choices.
So why does GW do it? They say it's to build a community, but that's just a PR answer; the real goal is to make money for Sodexho, the company GW contracts with to provide food in the Marvin Center (and several other locations).
Years ago, GW's food service was handled by a company called Aramark; ask any of us old-timers about Aramark, and you'll probably get a long rant with a lot of fist-shaking. Aramark (like Sodexho) provided poor-quality food at high prices, and they had a 10-year contract with the University. They ended their affiliation with GW after only a few years, though, because their contract had an escape clause--if they weren't turning enough of a profit in their first few years of business, they could withdraw. The Daily Colonial reported on Aramark's departure:
J Street was last renovated when Aramark re-upped their contract in July 2004.
At the time, Aramark created an out-clause in the contract that allowed them to back out of the deal if the venture proved unprofitable.
Sodexho and Aramark have the same problem--they're not used to competition. They usually provide food in venues such as hospitals, airports, prisons and schools--in other words, places where you don't have much of a choice where you eat. Places where the goal is to make food as cheaply as possible to guarantee the biggest profits.
In all likelihood, GW is trying to keep Sodexho by forcing GW students to spend money at their locations, guaranteeing a certain level of profit. Of course, the problems with this are numerous--students don't like it, local businesses are harmed, the food is poor quality (and there are almost no healthy options), and it reinforces the stereotype of GW as a business first and a school second.
J Street isn't a dining hall. I spent some time at American a few years ago, and they had a dining hall--a massive room with plenty of options: options for vegetarians and vegans, healthy food, unhealthy food, basically whatever you could have wanted. And the food wasn't gourmet, but it was certainly better than Sodexho food. In addition, students received a certain number of visits per semester, instead of a monetary amount assigned to their card; this way, you weren't victim to high prices and therefore limited in the amount of food you can eat.
GW can't have a true dining hall, because the GWorld system doesn't allow it. Students can--and to--spend money at plenty of outside businesses, not all of them food. It's a great system that encourages students to get to know DC, and it also helps cover non-food costs--things like soap and shampoo at CVS and books at the bookstore (without GWorld, I never could have bought my textbooks).
The solution? Sodexho needs to shape up. If they want to turn a profit, they have to compete. Offer better food, better hours, more options, better options, etc. Give us a reason to eat there; make us want to eat your food.
GW isn't an airport. It isn't a prison. It's not a public school or a hospital. We have a choice; when presented with poor-quality food at high prices, we're going to go elsewhere. GW sees itself as a business first and a school second; if that's the case, then perhaps they should focus better on serving their customers, even if it means they can't pad their bottom line with mandatory student expenditures.
Have some thoughts on this? Well, you can always contact the GW Dining Services Commission--they have a form on their website, located here.