Predicting the future can be impossible on a college campus, and Vassar is no exception to this. Starting this Friday, Sept. 18, and continuing through the following two Fridays, however, three dining companies are seeking to do just that. Their hope is to win over students and the community with new ideas as to how they can rectify the long-unpopular campus dining system.
Following two years of general dissatisfaction with campus dining, the College will play host to two new food vendors, Sodexo and Bon Apetit, as well as Vassar’s current supplier, Aramark.
Each vendor will give presentations detailing their short-term and long-term goals for the dining program, covering such issues as sustainability, support of local food businesses and ethical purchasing practices. They will each have a day to answer questions and solicit feedback from students.
Though the precise future of the College’s dining plan remains up in the air, students and administrators alike see these presentations as an opportunity to parse out exactly
which vendor could, and should, be feeding students on campus come next fall..
Assistant Dean of the College for Campus Activities Teresa Quinn, has worked with the College’s food suppliers for many years. In her mind, these presentations offer students the chance to help administrators find the best food the College can provide for the community. She remarked, “We have asked the providers to share why they are interested in a dining campus partnership and working relationship with the college and how they approach the task of creating and sustaining an extraordinary dining experience for a diverse and engaged community.”
Despite the optimism that Quinn expressed for the future of dining, it is no great secret among students that campus dining has grown unpopular in recent years.
Student Co-Chair of the Food Committee Sarah Sandler ’18 [full disclosure: Sandler is a staff reporter for The Miscellany News] detailed some of the concerns many of her constituents have brought to her. As she recalled in an emailed statement, “The biggest concerns students have that I have heard are nutrition, quality, sustainability, variety and options for various diets.”
Sandler was careful, however, to distinguish the current state of dining with the efforts of the College’s current food vendor, Aramark. “A lot of people just assume that Deece food is low quality, packaged, frozen stuff but being part of Food Committee has shed light on how much effort and thought actually goes into serving good food,” she reflected.
Sandler wasn’t the only student working with dining who has encountered concerns though. Vassar Student Association VP for Student Life Chris Brown ’16 works closely with students to address concerns about meal plans. He expressed great excitement at the prospect of offering feedback to visiting food vendors and giving students a voice in the search process, especially in light of the discontent his constituents have sent him.
Reflecting on the issues he recalls being notified of, Brown said, “I think some of the issues with dining are: a) unfair prices because a meal swipe costs on average 15 dollars which is absurd and b) the quality of food.”
A recurring theme among dining officials’ discussion of the new vendors is the importance of student involvement. Although students will not ultimately make the final decision as to who will get to cook for campus, many stressed how much value the vendors actually put into winning over the community.
Quinn spoke of the necessity of student input as the College moves forward in deciding the future of dining services at Vassar. As she explained, “Student voices are absolutely essential in this process. Everyone has to find sustenance throughout the day, and the majority of students visit ACDC and the Retreat on a daily basis. Therefore, dining is a very important part of the college experience.”
She continued, speaking to the critical impact food has on student’s on-campus experiences in general. “Students feel better in all aspects of their lives when they are eating well and can make informed and educated decisions about their dining experience with a variety of options and locations,” she said.
But before students can weigh in on their preferences, they have to know what dining options exist. Transparency has not always been a point of strength for Campus Dining but moving forward, the hope is that these presentations will further inform students’ understanding of what food possibilities are out there..
As Brown explained, “Unfortunately, a lot of what has been happening with these three vendors has been very internal. At this point, students don’t know a lot about all three of the vendors and I think these meetings are an excellent opportunity to give students the insight that they need as well as to provide student input to these vendors.”
Sandler agreed that the hopeful food providers’ best course of action will be to break with what many students see as a consistent lack of dialogue about issues surrounding student dining on campus. “From these presentations, I would like to see just a lot of simple honesty,” Sandler wrote. “Attendees won’t learn a lot from vague plans and I hope we see some concrete examples of what these companies are doing at other locations and what they may do the same/differently at Vassar. If they threw in a sample menu or possible additions, that’d be great.”
Looking forward, many confirm that these presentations are laden with expectation. Ultimately, it isn’t just the vendors who imagine a better future for campus dining. More than anyone else, it is students who know what they want to eat.
“Ideal Vassar dining is different for everybody, but if I can try to sum it up I would say Vassar dining would look like many fresh, healthy options, options for vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free etc, as much local produce as possible, variety, more efficient set up (we all know how hectic it is at 6 or 6:30 pm), and convenience (for spots like the Retreat, Kiosk, and UpC),” Sandler said.
Brown echoed this sentiment. To him, the most important part of the coming search process is the emphasis on giving students a voice to express their wants and needs for how they eat on campus. After all, it is students who will be eating this food everyday.
“The best outcome would be that there is a lot of student interest,” Brown posited. “I think that the main push for this change came from student voices last year. And previous years… This movement is a product of student voices and I think first off I think what would be a good thing to happen is at these three upcoming meetings with vendors there is a lot of student participation.”
“I think it matters because there is a lot of passion behind it. It is just a matter of taking that passion and putting it into action. And one way of doing that is showing up to these events,” Brown went on to say.