Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

The MLA Conference and the Curious Case of the $6.25 Granola Bar

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Scholars shuffling through the exhibit hall at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention last week had plenty to talk about: Israel and academic freedom. The job market. Craigslist hookups. The conference theme—“Vulnerable Times.”

But for a while, one question seemed to trump all others: What’s up with the price of granola?

At the exhibit hall’s snack bar, Nature Valley granola bars were selling for $6.25 a pop. So were regular-size Snickers, Baby Ruths, Kit Kats, and packs of Skittles. (We did some comparison shopping at the Walgreen’s near our office in Washington, D.C. They’re selling Skittles and Kit Kats for $1.19 each; the Nature Valley bars come in at $1.29.)

There were other offenders: You’d pay almost two bucks for a small bag of Rold Gold pretzels or Jays potato chips; $2.25 for a banana or apple; $3.50 for a cup of hot water and a tea bag; $3.75 for coffee; and $13.75 for a carton of Greek or chicken Caesar salad.

But at the conference hall, and on social media, it was the granola bars that drew the most attention:

Courtney Marshall, an assistant professor of English and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire, wrote on Facebook: “Could you please do something about those high refreshment prices? $6.25 for a granola bar? MLA is on that bull.”

There’s no question that Granolagate comes at an awkward time. Last year I wrote about how new Ph.D.’s often spend thousands of dollars to apply for academic jobs. The bulk of that cost comes from attending conferences and paying for flights, taxi rides, hotel stays, registration fees, interview clothes, and food. Frustration over the expenses seems to be rising: In the past few years there’s been an uptick in conspiracy theories that the MLA is engaged in price fixing at conference hotels.

The expensive snacks fed those conspiracy theories and led some attendees to call on the MLA to do something to bring down the prices.

But the truth is that there’s really not much the MLA can do about this. The Sheraton Hotel, in downtown Chicago, where this year’s meeting was held, makes the call on food pricing.

So it’s either expensive Skittles or none at all. “We have no control over what hotels charge,” said Rosemary Feal, the executive director of the MLA, in an email after the conference. “We can have no food sales in the exhibit hall if we wish.”

Michael F. Bérubé, the MLA’s former president, agreed: “I am very sure that the MLA has no more control over the $6 granola bars than it does over the $12 vodka-and-tonics at the cash bars.” He explained that the MLA, like any large organization hosting a conference in a major city, can bargain on hotel-room rates, so rooms that ordinarily go for $300 to $400 are made available for $150 or so. Free wireless access is easy enough to arrange, too. But “I don’t know how anyone can bargain hotels’ food prices,” he said. (I reached out, by the way, to the head of catering and sales at the Sheraton, but my calls went unreturned.)

And in case you were wondering: No, the MLA doesn’t make a cent from exhibit-hall concessions. In fact, before the conference started, Bérubé took to Facebook and wrote that many scholars think the overall event is more lucrative for the MLA than it actually is.

“They actually think the MLA organizes the job search process in such a way as to profit from the misery of jobseekers,” Bérubé said.

It’s no great surprise that sales at the snack bar were less than brisk. For one thing, as Feal pointed out, there are plenty of exhibitors giving food away. In fact, a few major scholarly publishing houses gave away trays of cheese, veggies and dip, matzo, and wine. Every half-hour or so, hordes of hungry scholars rushed to these tables, not necessarily to check out the book titles on display, but to grab a quick snack and some booze.

Anyway, Bérubé said, extortionate granola prices are just another reason to do something well worth doing—getting out to see Chicago. “I saw lots of people head for grocery stores and pharmacies to stock up on snacks at non-hotel prices,” he said. “People need to leave the hotel sometimes and look around.”

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