Remember, Remember, the Fifth of September

Changing Dining Hall: reflections on the new system

By Robert van Schaik and Christian Bobocea

Week two of the academic year brought a major change in the core of UCU students’ daily routine: Dining Hall. Along with the change of the caterer came new food, new prices, new rules and brand new DH cards. Only the old staff remained almost unchanged and the new situation inevitably affected social life on campus. Sodexo – a French foodservice corporation with multinational clients including schools of all shapes and sizes, hospitals and military bases – has become the word on everyone’s lips. 

The change in DH sparked controversy among students and protests ranging from facebook pages and multi-digit e-mails sent to the UCSA Board, the Dining Hall Advisory Group and College Hall staff, to a public petition, posters and fliers around campus. Interestingly, our case is not unique. Sodexo has a history of instigating students’ discontent as reported in student newspapers: “Students lose appetite for Sodexo dining” (Los Angeles Loyolan), “Students plan Sodexo Boycott” (The Depauw), “Kick-Out-Sodexo Coalition Joined By New Student Groups For Latest Sit-In” (The Daily of The University of Washington). But who bears the blame in our situation? Is it Sodexo, or maybe College Hall’s approach, or Utrecht University’s policy? Or better, is there a problem with the new system at all?

Costs

The prices of food in DH sparked angry discussions for the last two weeks. After the first day, prices were immediately adjusted downward, with a budget dinner option for 3.95 euro. For some, this seems to be reasonable; for others, it doesn’t make a big difference.

“The quality of the food has definitely improved, but for students it is still expensive,” second semester student Shahzaib Momin said.

It isn’t clear who sets the prices. “College Hall has no influence on prices because we buy directly from Sodexo,” Campus Life Forum Chair Valeria Boers Trillers said.

But Dining Hall Manager Kees Jan van Spronsen says this is not the case: “It’s the UU that sets the prices. That’s why the prices could be lowered so easily within a day.” The decision to lower the prices after the first day was taken in conjunction between Sodexo and the UU, while “it could well be that other Sodexo locations maintain higher prices.”

New DH prices sparked controversy
Illustration by Carlos Martinez

According to van Spronsen, strictly speaking, prices haven’t increased at all. “We still buy products for the same price as we used to under Eurest,” he said.  Previously, however, the system worked with an all-inclusive policy, with College Hall paying for the staff costs and the operating funds. This is no longer the case under the new system, thus prices have risen.

“There is a very close consultation between College Hall and Sodexo, who have been given formal and informal feedback since starting, including issues over prices,” Student Life Officer Mark Baldwin said in an e-mail interview.

Boers Trilles stressed that changes are possible, “but returning to the old system is not.” The paying-per-item system has been students’ most frequent preferred option in the Dining Hall improvement survey that went out last year, she added.

There is a call among students to make Dining Hall optional. Students who wish to have meals in Dining Hall will continue to pay the 1,500 euros fee to College Hall, while those who do not wish to do so for various reasons will not pay and will find alternative dining options. The current policy only allows Dining Hall exemptions to students with specific health issues.

“There might be students who find it morally repulsive to eat here because they do not agree with the history or policy of the company who offers the catering service, as an example,” second year Simon van Oort said. He thinks students should not be forced to pay the Dining Hall fee. “Have Dining Hall there, because we need it, leave it open for Saturday dinner as well, but make the 750 euro [per semester] optional.”

Social aspects

Along with the food and DH operation, consequently, campus social life is changed for good: less people are now eating in Dining Hall.  Will relaxed, one-hour long dinners in a noisy, bubbling Dining Hall only be part of the past?

Simon van Oort thinks that “the purpose of Dining Hall was to be a place to meet your friends. Now it may happen that students with a good financial situation ignore Dining Hall and eat at bar-café’s, cook nice meals for themselves or start dining-clubs; and students with moderate financial means will partially cook for themselves and eat one meal per day in Dining Hall, which could lead to some sort of social stratification”.

“The reforms may alter the dynamics of Dining Hall use, though it’s not yet clear how this will impact on the overall quality of social life on campus,” Baldwin said. “Fortunately, I don’t think students depend only on Dining Hall for their social life, and I remain optimistic that the changes will not overcome the sheer positive force of UCU’s communal spirit!”

“There are voices that consider that, given the fact that students may have to spend more time cooking on their own, they may have less time to spend on their studies, which goes against the initial purpose of Dining Hall,” van Oort added.

One thing is for certain: there have been fewer students in Dining Hall in the last two weeks than ever before, mostly because the 750 euros each student receives per semester only cover one hot meal per day.

Additionally, students from “outside the bubble” will join meals in Dining Hall. Starting this year, the cafeterias in The James Boswell Institute and The School of Economics are closed down.

Student consultation

How did we come to what we have now? Were students consulted promptly?

“The Representatives from the UCSA, ASC and Dining Hall Advisory Group were structurally involved in the reforms, meeting with the UCU Management Team at regular intervals,” Baldwin said.

Boers Trillers stressed that input from the whole student body was gathered through a campus-wide survey distributed last semester.

“Together with those responsible for the university-wide catering facilities, and with the Management Team, student representatives looked for a new model that would be both acceptable and affordable for students, and also bring the university’s financial risks back to a minimum whilst preserving the social benefits of communal eating,” Baldwin added.

Although the paying-per-item system was a student wish fulfilled, issues concerning price and the possibility of making Dining Hall optional were not fully considered.

Future

The long queues at the cash register have been another major source of rage among students. An e-mail from the UCSA Board ensured

that “a 4th cash register will be added (to the 3 already in use)” to trim down the long waiting lines.

Except for the waiting and high prices for certain items, not all students are discontented with the change. “Positive feedback has also been received, particularly on the apparent reduction in food wastage and the idea that students can monitor their own spending and food consumption,” Baldwin said. Food waste has been reduced for 75-80%, according to van Spronsen.

After the protest dust has settled down, students seem to be getting used to the new system, with minor complaints here and there. “Change is sometimes challenging to handle, but it’s also inevitable for all of us,” says Baldwin. “It’s absolutely right that UCU students feel strongly about their campus and voice their concerns – this can be a very powerful thing, though the context for change is also very important to understand”.

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