“If you live near a grocery store but you can’t afford to shop there, then it doesn’t matter that you're not in a food desert. You’re still hungry,” wrote author and activist Mikki Kendall in her book “Hood Feminism.”
Dr. Philip Geheber from the Princeton Writing Program, an expert on the role of food in communities, cited the passage in reference to Princeton’s Nassau Street dining scene and students who elect to be independent. His writing seminar, WRI 121: The Future of Food, examines the food system infrastructure in Princeton and beyond.
Last year, about 12 percent of upperclassmen pledged to be independent during room draw. Amidst ongoing conversations around potential changes to upperclassmen dining, independent students are already navigating often-complex financial factors related to food.
Although eating club dining plans are the most popular among upperclass undergraduates, many juniors and seniors still opt to pledge independent. University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss reported in an email to The Daily Princetonian that 332 upperclass students chose to be independent during last year’s room draw, with that number rising following room draw.
The plan includes two dining hall swipes per week, with the rest of the week’s meals up to the students’ discretion — primarily cooking, ordering food, or eating out.
The University launched the Dining Pilot, in which a select group of students can have five meals a week at any eating club or co-op regardless of membership, with independent students in mind. With the Dining Pilot requiring participants to be hosted by a member of the clubs they’re eating at, similarly to the existing meal exchange program, the biggest change is for independent students who previously relied on guest swipes, which may be very limited, to eat with friends at eating clubs.
Many independent students tend to buy products in bulk at nearby stores such as Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Target with fellow independent students. The majority of the students the ‘Prince’ spoke to mentioned that they use TigerTransit’s Weekend Shopper bus most frequently for travel to these stores, aside from rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft.
Students have transportation options such as the aforementioned Weekend Shopper, NJTransit’s 605 bus route, and the Municipality of Princeton’s free bus service. These services provide students with access to stores such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Target, and more. Princeton University also offers low-cost hourly car rentals through a partnership with Enterprise Carshare.
Even with these transportation options, however, grocery shopping can be difficult. Geheber stated that people who are not used to using buses to go grocery shopping can find it challenging, noting that riding the bus can limit how much someone buys because they then have to carry the groceries back on the bus and to campus.
Additionally, some students find that there is a lack of affordable grocery options within walking distance of campus. Jasmyn Dobson ’24, an independent student, spoke to the ‘Prince’ regarding the issues with transportation, noting, “For myself I’ve found some things really hard, particularly when the buses aren’t operating regularly and I can’t get necessary food items.”
Dobson is a News writer for the ‘Prince.’
Students may instead rely on communities of independent students. Joy Cho ’24 noted, “A lot of people I know that are independent live in the same building as me, so we all look out for each other.”
The options for obtaining groceries without leaving campus seem to be limited. “The U-Store is okay for every once in a while, but like Nassau, it’s unsustainable in the long term if you’re on a strict budget,” Dobson said.
The ‘Prince’ recently investigated how U-Store prices compare to competitors, finding that it is cheaper for those who purchase a membership, than farther grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Wegmans, which may have more variety than the U-Store.
Geheber commented, “The stores in town trend toward boutique specialty shops, with some attention to students, but students aren’t their primary customer base. Stores like Olsson’s Fine Foods on Palmer Square are much more like their neighbors on the square Hermès than they are like Wegmans.”
Even with the challenges of being independent, students cite financial reasons for the plan’s appeal. Cho remarked that being independent is “definitely more affordable than any other dining plan,” and more cost-effective compared to the dining hall or eating club plans.
For some students, another advantage of being independent is its flexibility. When on the dining hall plan as an underclassman, some found that they had difficulty finding time in their own schedule to meet the meal hours for dining halls.
One independent student, Gabriel Robare ’24, said, “I’ve often made a 2 a.m. sandwich after coming home from ‘the Street,’ or made dinner at 4:30 p.m. because I had an event to get to, or made breakfast at 11 because I was working late the night before. That’s a very helpful part of independent life.”
Robare is the Strategic Initiative Director for Archives at the ‘Prince.’
Dobson was unsure about whether the stipend provided by the University met students’ full financial need.
“I don’t think it really takes into account the real cost of living in Mercer County in general,” Dobson said.
In response to these claims, Hotchkiss stated that students’ financial aid budgets cover food costs. For all upperclass students, the standard cost is $10,034, and high-need independent students are provided refunds every semester for food.
Geheber remarked, “I've not yet determined what an ideal solution might be in Princeton, but I can say that ideally we'd create a food system that isn't entirely left to the whims of market competition for supply and that doesn’t assume universal car ownership.”
Jeannie Kim is a first-year from Chicago, Illinois and a Feature and News staff writer for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Cho is a first-year from Long Island, New York and a News staff writer for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified pledging independent as an independent meal plan. Independent students elect not to join an eating club and not to purchase a meal plan.