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EDITORIAL: Atrium serves up major problems for University dining

The Atrium needs serious change before it can truly benefit all students

Issues with the Atrium should be addressed. – Photo by Elliot Dong

Rapid changes to University operations, specifically on the College Avenue campus, have been a point of contention this past semester. The most prolific of these changes is the closure of Brower Commons and its replacement with the Atrium.

As announced prior to the start of the Fall 2023 semester, the traditional dining hall was replaced with a new takeout-based cafeteria located within the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus.

This move is part of the Rutgers 2030 Master Plan, which aims to help meet the needs of students and improve the physical aesthetics of the College Avenue campus. While the Atrium resides in a renovated space with new meal options, it presents major challenges to on-campus nutrition, sustainability, socialization and student affordability.

First, the Atrium currently presents a markedly limited culinary landscape, characterized by repetitive and mundane meal options. Predominantly featuring fried foods, the Atrium offers scant vegetable choices, contributing to a nutritionally imbalanced offering.

Unlike other dining options, where a variety of specialized foods are readily available, the Atrium necessitates that students put in specific dietary accommodation requests. This limits accessibility for students with dietary or religious restrictions and, in doing so, places boundaries on the number of students who can go to the space for their meals.

Beyond inconvenience, the Atrium's food packaging scheme is a step backward for the University's sustainability plans. The more sustainable practices observed at Brower Commons facilitated self-portioning with reusable plates, while the Atrium relies heavily on disposable cardboard boxes, contributing significantly to waste.

This issue is compounded by the oversized portions provided, often leading to unnecessary food wastage — a particularly distressing observation given the level of food insecurity in the nearby areas. This past year, approximately 90,000 people faced food insecurity in Middlesex County alone.

The Atrium's spatial constraints further diminish students' dining experience. Brower Commons' spacious layout was conducive to both social interactions and extended stays. Meanwhile, the Atrium's compact seating area struggles to accommodate the high student traffic of the College Avenue campus, especially during peak hours. This limited space often results in extended waiting times for food preparation.

One of the Atrium's worst offenses is its pricing, incongruous with the typical college student's meal budget and part of larger moves toward a lack of affordability at the University.

Where the Atrium now stands, previously available options like Wendy's and Subway once offered budget-friendly choices, complementing the adjacent dining hall. In stark contrast, the Atrium's pricing — approximately $14 per meal, excluding sides and beverages — poses a significant financial burden for students, many of whom are already navigating tight budgets.

The noticeable hike in meal prices contradicts the University's responsibility to ensure affordable access to food — a necessity made all the more critical given that 36.9 percent of undergraduates at Rutgers report experiencing some level of food insecurity.

This price increase becomes even more pronounced when considering the monetary value of meal plans. For instance, a 50-meal swipe plan equates to approximately $20 per meal — a steep figure compared to the modest $10 allowance per meal swipe at other dining options like Cafe West.

Because tuition, housing, fees and meal plan prices have all increased this school year, such discrepancies highlight a glaring imbalance in the University's dining services.

This is further demonstrated by the requirement of first-year students and upperclassmen living in residential halls to purchase meal plans equaling totals of at least $2,939 and $2,777, respectively.

Additionally, beginning this past fall, meal plans were automatically assigned to all on-campus apartment residents, forcing students to manually opt out of this costly burden.

This raises questions about the equitable distribution of resources and the prioritization of student welfare. In light of these concerns, Rutgers can consider several avenues for improvement.

Diversifying the Atrium's menu with a balance of staple and rotating dishes to emulate the variety found in other dining halls is crucial. More vegetarian and special dietary options should be readily available, enhancing inclusivity.

Transparency is also key. The University must clarify ongoing questions about the status of and future plans for both Brower Commons and the Atrium. Implementing a student input survey could provide valuable insights, aligning dining services more closely with actual student needs and preferences.

Furthermore, recognizing a dining hall's role as a social and cultural nexus is essential, especially on a campus as historic as the College Avenue campus.

This campus has been the backdrop for numerous political protests and rallies, symbolizing diversity and freedom of speech. Embracing these values and continuing the tradition of fostering a vibrant, inclusive community should be paramount in any plans for the dining services at Rutgers.

While it is understood that not all complaints can be resolved and complete satisfaction is an elusive goal, prioritizing these factors is vital in maintaining the campus's legacy as a central hub of student life.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 155th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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