Student businesses should have the right to accept Dining Dollars as payment

By Doug Hornstein

(Collegian File Photo)
(Collegian File Photo)

In the early 1970s, student businesses opened at the University of Massachusetts. The first was Sylvan Snack Bar, which was soon followed by others, seven of which remain today. They are now run as cooperatives, meaning that each student worker is a co-manager and thus receives equal pay and has equal say in business decisions. The co-op model contrasts that of UMass Dining, a traditional capitalist business wherein the food service workers are paid a low-wage to produce value for the upper level owners and managers who make all business decisions.

When the student co-ops originated, they were entirely separate from UMass Dining, but four of them – Earthfoods Café, Greeno Sub Shop, Sweets N’ More and Sylvan Snack Bar – were eventually integrated into meal plans through their inclusion in YCMP plans. Recent changes to the meal plan, most importantly the implementation of Dining Dollars, exclude the student co-ops, making it more difficult for them to remain a relevant option for students.

All students who live in non-apartment style residence halls on campus are mandated to purchase a meal plan. According to UMass Dining, over 40 percent of students choose to buy the unlimited plan, which includes the UMass currency called Dining Dollars. Students can use their Dining Dollars at any dining location on campus – except at the student cooperatives. The fact that students can’t fully support student co-ops with their meal plans makes it nearly impossible for the co-ops to compete with UMass’ retail dining locations, all of which accept Dining Dollars. The policy of exclusion risks putting the student co-ops out of business.

The only way students can use their meal plan at student co-ops is through YCMP plans available only to juniors and seniors, which UMass Dining debated cutting last year and kept only due to student protest.

Student co-ops are beneficial to the UMass community, and students and the administration alike have an interest in keeping them afloat. They prove that a more fair way of doing business is possible.

Workers can successfully run a business together – they do not need top-down management or unequal pay. The horizontal structure also provides student workers with experience in making decisions collectively and organizing a business, which they would not find elsewhere. Additionally, the co-ops provide an alternative food source to students, faculty and community members. Earthfoods Café provides delicious vegetarian and vegan meals, and Greeno Sub Shop offers healthy food for students while sourcing from local producers and businesses, thus participating in local community development. They directly enhance the UMass community by hosting open mic nights, gallery shows and events by various student groups.

The co-ops are heavily marketed by UMass, displayed as a source of innovation and student initiative and mentioned during tours of campus. Further, in meetings with students, administrators from the Office of Student Affairs and Campus Life and UMass Dining have expressed to students how important the co-ops are to the campus and how dedicated they are to supporting them.

These administrators’ words and endorsements are hollow without a specific commitment from them to better include student co-ops in meal plans.

If the administration is going to force students to buy a meal plan, we should at least have a say in where we can use it. The contract between the student co-ops and the administration that allows them to be included in the meal plan expires this May. The co-ops, in coalition with the Student Labor Action Project, are working to get Dining Dollars rights expanded to student businesses.

I am a member of the UMass Student Labor Action project and if you are interested in organizing with us, “like” the UMass Student Labor Action Project page on Facebook.

Doug Hornstein is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]