The Ever-Evolving Student Center

By Killian Walsh '14

The Bennington College Student Center is undergoing a number of changes. A small portion of these shifts have already taken place, including a revised menu, greater selection of available items, and an overhaul of the Grab-N-Go program. More changes are on the way and to get a better idea of where our favorite alternative dining option is heading, the BFP spoke with Student Center manager Kerry McGuire to see what’s in store. Most notably, there has been an expansion and refinement of the dining menu, introducing new items and taking a greater focus on locally-sourced products and produce. While students struggled with the trials and tribulations of Field Work Term, Dan and Todd, the chefs at the Student Center, were experimenting with new recipes and refining the old ones, taking time to prepare for what would undoubtedly be a busy spring season. They also laid the groundwork for introducing produce from the campus’ own Purple Carrot Farm to popular menu items, specifically in the variety of salads that a student is able to order.

It’s likely that the average Bennington undergrad has already noticed the slight increase in meal points for lunch and dinner, allowing for greater latitude in available food options, or the new snacks and breads on sale, but most of the Student Center’s operation remains a mystery, though what’s unseen is vital to understanding how this institution functions. “People are passionate about their food,” McGuire says. “It’s why we do what we do.” Feeding an army of literally starving artists (as well as academics) is taxing on what is often a team of four or five people. Before the dinner rush sets in, they’re preparing what foods they can and making sure that when the masses do arrive, they’re ready to serve them up some high-quality grub.

Space is a valuable commodity––both on the food station, and around it. One of the reasons a la carte ordering is being phased out is to help increase efficiency and quality behind the counter. Adding or removing ingredients––though seemingly simple––introduces a certain element of chaos to an already hectic work situation. If you want to add avocado to your salad, that means avocados need to be brought from cold storage, laid out on valuable counter space, and then used to their fullest capacity: meaning not wasted. It’s an unfortunate reality of the school’s size that we have to compromise on what we eat, though that’s not to say efforts weren’t made to maximize the Student Center’s functionality. McGuire mentions wanting to introduce additional equipment into the kitchen to increase capacity, and the difficulty in achieving that: “Where it fell short was not money, or desire, or commitment––it was infrastructure.” Simply put, the Student Center is too small a space to accommodate everything a student might want from it, and even now it’s been stretched a great deal to provide us with what we already have.

There is hope for a more nuanced dining experience when the Student Center is able to move from its current location to a new one, which is under construction at the moment. Given more space and time to plan, McGuire says it’s possible that they’ll be able to offer fresh produce, grilled menu items with what he fondly calls “racing stripes,” steamed foods and vegetables, an order ahead option not unlike the beloved Dominos Pizza Tracker®, and a way to keep food heated in the event that someone forgets to pick up their order. All these alterations are still a long way from becoming a reality, but the important thing to take away from this is that the Student Center is open to suggestions and sensitive to what’s already popular. “I don’t really see a desire to radically change what we’re doing,” McGuire says. “I appreciate the feedback. It’d be great to have more [...] “face time” is precious.”

Efforts are also being made to better publicize the daily specials and the newly-introduced “Pub Menu,” which includes some of the items that were formerly available at lunch and dinner, along with selections of grinder-style deli sandwiches that have the option of being served toasted. McGuire encourages students to email him their thoughts (kmcguire@bennington.edu) as well as to apply to work at the Student Center, since there are many shifts available. One of the biggest issues “Studes” faces, beyond those mentioned above, is a staffing shortage, so any help is both appreciated and welcomed. The College is lucky to have such a dedicated and meticulous team providing us with quality food on a regular basis. They’re often working long hours––for one, McGuire usually stays there working until 1:00 am and arrives the next day bright and early––and they have to remain flexible around the deliveries from their suppliers. Kerry mentions one instance where all the ingredients for a Panini lunch special arrived, except for the mozzarella cheese. His thoughts?    

“What are we going to do with all this Ciabatta Bread?”