Dining improvements mask needed structural review

Don’t be fooled by its fresh looks and new food flair—the ACDC has a long way to go before you should think everything is fine with Vassar’s overall dining experience.

I’m only now returning to campus after a semester away in London, where most of my meals came out of a kitchen or across the street from a hole-in-the-wall shop called Gateway Chicken. But based on the word from friends and classmates, the ACDC, or “Deece”, seems different this semester—perhaps even (dare I say) better.

The changes at the Deece so far appear to be subtle acts of acknowledgment to a variety of student requests for better dining options: There’s fresh water flavored with lemons, melons, or cucumbers. The ice cream machine is fixed and has a station for sprinkles. The vegetables come freshly steamed in pots, rather than steeping in a pool of oil and water. There’s chocolate milk again in the Retreat. As little as these changes may be, they do reflect an effort by Director of Campus Dining Maureen King and her team to listen to student interests, likely with some kind of active collaboration between herself and the current food committee chair.

I wonder if the efforts of Aramark to improve the dining hall are just acknowledgment of long overdue change, or perhaps a sign of something else that’s been on the table this year. For those who read my article on Aramark’s relationship to campus dining, you may remember that the Dean of the College, Chris Roellke, has expressed interest in pursuing “strategic alternatives”, which likely means a new Request for Proposal (RFP). (The Miscellany News, “Campus food services leave students hungry for options,” 04.23.14)

A Request for Proposal is basically a call for bids on the operation of Vassar’s dining system. While it is indeed “Vassar campus dining,” in reality Aramark is the company that operates the ACDC, Retreat, Java City, Late Night, and other meal plan options. All the cooks and cleaners are unionized Vassar College employees, but the managers (excluding one) remain Aramark employees and report to Maureen King. In an RFP, other companies, such as Bon Appetit, submit proposals of how they’d vision and operate a dining system for Vassar’s campus to meet our needs and be as cost-effective as possible. Bon Appetit, for example, operates Wesleyan’s dining experience. There are many moving parts to this logistical and business process, but ultimately it’s about asking other companies what they’d do if they were in charge of feeding us.

Roellke isn’t the only one who’s been examining campus dining. Last spring I recall as well the VP of Finance & Administration, Bob Walton, walking through the Deece and meeting with Aramark staff. This is pure speculation, but given the college’s continuing effort to keep costs down while improving quality of life, it’s logical to think that campus dining is on the to-do list of quality and cost improvement, given how much complaining about dining is so ingrained in our daily life.

Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t like I think Aramark is the devil. I do however think that Aramark has been the bane of Vassar’s dining experience for a long, long time. As much as this is my opinion, it’s also shared by countless students, not to mention faculty and college employees who had the courage to share this information with me.

My interest isn’t to get rid of Aramark either. Aramark, like any other competitor, is a company. What Vassar needs to do is review how it controls dining on campus with a company, and then issue an RFP to see what options we have as a campus. It’s also far more important that Vassar considers its own structure before the RFP, as a weak structure in dining accountability will simply bring us back to the same problems we have today with Aramark.

Accountability, as far as I see it, depends on a thorough RFP process that operates alongside a system that gives students, administrators, and faculty equal authority to inform our dining services provider of concerns and grievances about campus dining needs and capabilities. I am not aware of what the structure of the Campus Dining Review Committee and other past organizations were, but dining ought to be treated as a joint project, just as we handle admissions & financial aid, college life, and other endeavors. This is especially important with student-led initiatives, which at times fall on deaf ears due to the status-quo structure, which is composed of a VSA Food Committee and a separate structure, where Maureen King collaborates with the Director of Campus Activities, Terry Quinn.

Meanwhile, having an active RFP means we can at least know what’s out there and whether we would be happy with a company besides Aramark. For all we know, Aramark is perhaps the best and most willing of our alternatives to customize our needs. It may be our needs are more about Vassar’s internal structure and budgeting to campus dining, rather than the services company we contract to handle its internal management. The fact remains that we will not know how we will fix dining if we don’t start from somewhere with a in-depth project like an RFP, which may also motivate Aramark to be invested in its relationship with Vassar College. It’s possible Aramark is already very committed, given its long history at the college, but I ask Campus Dining to prove its relationship through a process as challenging as defending its relationship in a new RFP and vision for campus dining.

Should a committee be formed to review and consider these major changes to our dining experiences, I ask everyone on campus to think long-term about our dining solutions. Even if Aramark turns over a new leaf, our goals should be about structural changes to prevent mistakes from reoccurring. Are we going to continually get new choices and ideas for meals, or are we going to fall back into old habits, serving three kinds of broiled chicken each week for dinner?

I don’t know what dining will look like in the coming years, but I hope everyone takes dining seriously as ideas about alternatives take hold. Sometimes it seems a stigma exists that dining is too petty a matter among all the other ongoing issues and concerns on campus. While dining is of course nowhere near the importance to issues of campus climate and the necessity of restructuring and discourse to these issues, let’s not forget the reality that a failure in structure in dining reflects Vassar Administration’s failure to maintain better quality of life for students, which then reciprocates to issues of residential life, financial health, and the overall trust in Vassar’s own administrative structures.

I will also say that I’d trade­—in a heartbeat—lower quality dining for strides in fostering a better community. Still, I do think we can learn a lot about Vassar’s structures through this issue among many other faults in accountability, communication, and structure.

No matter what, we ought to have a better structure to handle dining and at the least a discussion of potential Aramark alternatives. If not, Administrators and the VSA are not doing justice to ensuring the best possible quality of life for students.


—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.

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