At the Dining Services Forum organized by Student Council last Thursday, students learned about the history of the meal plan, where the dining budget goes, and what Dining Services is doing to be sustainable, among other questions.
Linda McDougall, Director of Dining Services, opened the event with a plea for student input. “There’s a perception that Dining Services doesn’t want to give you what you want and that is not at all true… [but] if you don’t tell us what you want, we don’t know.” For example, she continued, “we’ve recently gotten a handful of students who are firm on being vegans, and we understand we are not meeting their needs as best we should… we’re working on that.”
Dean of Students Jim Larimore also urged students to give input, saying that in his 21 years in education administration, “she has been the most responsive and quick to act dining services director that I’ve ever worked with.”
To a question about finances posed by event moderator Nate Erskine ’10, Director of Facilities Stu Hain explained that from the money that students pay for the meal plan, “just under 21% pays for food [and] about 32% pays for dining staff salaries, wages and benefits. The rest pays for paper products, tableware, trash removal, utilities, uniforms, laundry, cleaning supplies, other direct costs, facilities stewardship and college administrative support,” including periodic upgrades of the dining facilities. Staff cost is the primary reason that Sharples is not open later, says McDougall. “We hear often that we want later hours, but that pushes our staff up further… we have a cleaning crew at night, some of them have to catch public transit home… it gets difficult.”
So how did the meal plan get to be the way it is? McDougall said that when she arrived in 1990, “there was the 20 meal plan at Sharples… there was nothing else.” A few years later, meal equivalency at Essie Mae’s was added to the plan. Meal equivalency progressed from only applying to sandwiches and fountain drinks at the beginning to encompass further categories of packaged goods. The 14 meal plan was only added in 1995, “with a very limited number of points,” with the 17 meal plan added a few years later. Then, “from suggestions from students living off campus… we added the 5 lunches a week plan.”
To the packaged goods question, McDougall explained that one of the reasons they have decreased the variety of goods is that “we don’t have anywhere to store them… that snack bar was not built to be a dining hall, [but] it’s turned into being something like a dining hall and it’s not built to be that way.”
Erskine then asked why students who live on campus are required to be on the meal plan. Hain said, “A good deal of it is about the sense of community we want on this campus… Swarthmore has very traditional dormitories, not suites,” meaning that there’s not really a place for students to cook regular meals. He added that while “it is easier to budget this way… the idea is that people will spend time together over a meal… that’s been a core value of this institution for a long time.”
Looking towards possible changes, Hain said that “we will not allow you to opt out altogether… knowing that we don’t have apartments and dorm kitchens, we’re paternalistic enough that we want people to get well nourished here.”
Larimore agreed, explaining that “the more variety you have in campus housing the more you can have in meal plans.” He also explained “the flatness of the fee structure,” meaning the fact that students pay the same amount for the 14 and 20 meal plans. “You don’t want people to have qualitatively different experiences based on their ability to pay… the fees are flat and we’ve tried to increase the flexibility.”
Would meal rollover be possible? McDougall said maybe, but “it would have to be a whole different meal plan, maybe you would get so many meals a semester and be able to use them whenever you wanted… there are trade offs when you change meal plans… it comes down to students, what if they can’t manage their meals?”
Asked about how menus are planned, Janet Kassab, Director of Purchasing and Menu Planning, explained that it’s a process of “trial and error” with student input taken into account. “We have a lot of history… we can look at what’s popular and what’s not popular… every Pasta Bar, students eat between 110 and 120 pounds of pasta, it never changes.” It also depends on the staff. “We like to use their special talents,” said Kassab, pointing to jerk chicken as one example of a successful staff-driven menu item.
Many students wish that Sharples offered more options, but Hain pointed out the limitations of the facility. “The dining hall was built for a student body of 900… the facility is doing so much more than what it is originally designed to do. We come up with ideas, but it’s a pretty constrained space.”
At this point, the forum was opened to student questions. McDougall reassured a student concerned about styrofoam cups in Tarble, explaining that they are now using biodegradable materials that look like styrofoam but are better for the environment. As to styrofoam bowls at ice cream bar, “we just don’t have enough bowls.” Students taking bowls are a serious problem; Hain reported that Dining Services spends $13,000 annually on replacing lost dinnerware.
To further sustainability concerns, McDougall said that “all the kitchen vegetable waste gets composted… another group of students is starting with a program at Kohlberg [Coffee Bar] for composting those coffee cups,” and explained that she works with Tom Cochrane, “the guru of energy management on campus” to make sure lighting at Sharples is not on for longer than it needs to be.
Asked about why every night isn’t like Local Food night, Kassab said that “we always have been committed to local food purchasing… eighty-five percent of what we purchase we conscientously try to get locally.” While the night did not cost more financially, Kassab said that it did cost more in terms of staff hours.
One student asked why students didn’t work at Sharples, like they do at Bryn Mawr. McDougall said that “I know the students at Bryn Mawr have great respect for dining services… if you are doing work study at Bryn Mawr, you have to work in the Dining Hall the first year,” giving a whole pool of student labor so that if one student can’t show, there is somebody to back them up. Some students currently work in support roles at Sharples, “but we don’t have line servers or deli people… it goes OK for a while, and then they don’t show up because of too much work.” McDougall also pointed out that “we can’t push the staff we have now out of jobs… we do welcome students to work in catering, that’s more flexible.”