Sodexo forum gives students a voice

November 14, 2014

On Wednesday Oct. 12 in the Olin-Sang Auditorium, the Senate Dining Committee sponsored a forum with Sodexo, Brandeis’ dining service provider. The event allowed students to pose questions and engage in meaningful discussion with Sodexo administration members in regard to campus dining services. Topics presented during the forum included food quality, changes to the meal plan options and student involvement in decision making processes. Wednesday’s event was the first forum held between students and Sodexo management, though it was meagerly attended by 11 students.

Ben Margolin, class of 2017 senator and chair of the senate dining committee spoke first: “We’re very proud to have this discussion and to hear everyone’s comments and concerns.” Margolin introduced the panelists: General Manager of Sodexo Shawn Monaghan, Senior Director of Operations Randi Kates-Peirce and Rabbi Chayim Zirkind. Vice President of Operations Jim Gray sat in the audience and participated in the dialogue as well.

To begin, Monaghan took a moment to offer his apologies, stating, “I’m embarrassed at the way we started this year … But if we think back where we were Sept. 1 to Nov. 1 we’re a completely different food service.” He apologized for “taking this long to get together a meeting with the students” and promised he is eager to engage in dialogue and work towards a better program for all. Universally, students agreed the food quality has improved significantly and thanked Sodexo for their efforts.

Katie Blocklove ’16 posed a question about the new meal plans introduced this year. Blocklove, who is on the 12 meal plan, strives to get the biggest bang for her buck, but finds it exceedingly difficult to use all her meals. She feels compelled to eat in dining halls and rarely visits Upper Usdan—as it only accepts points. Blocklove stated she preferred the meal plan options from the previous year.

Monaghan describes the process which led to new plans, stating there were students, administration and Sodexo personnel involved in discussions. Monaghan is currently participating in discussions to address the shortcomings of the meal plans.

Margolin asked Blocklove what particular corrections she would administer to the meal program. She suggested a ratio of more points to less meals would better represent student needs and allow students greater flexibility to dine in varying locations. She feels there are shortcomings in the current program, which ought to be addressed. Blocklove also questioned the ability of the school to update the meal plans.

Similar to Monaghan’s earlier remarks, Gray described the talks from several years ago, which involved both students and staff. Those discussions led to the university’s contract with Sodexo. The university bid on a package deal from Sodexo, which encompassed many items, said Gray—including items students had requested.

Blocklove asked how the students on the committee were chosen, and Gray explained they were Student Union representatives. Blocklove replied, “I’m not sure that that’s a very representative sample.”

Gray responded, “I’m not sure how to get more representative than the elected student representatives.” Blocklove suggested the administration send emails to students to ask who is interested in serving on the committee.

Gray recognized that it is “hard to represent 3,600 students perfectly,” but continued, “I think we made a sincere effort.”

He described the give and take process of building the contract, stating there were many items the school gained as result—such various retail locations. There were also certain items lost in the process, such as meal equivalency. Gray said that the practice was not economically feasible. He noted there are still aspects of the contract to be implemented, such as the policy requiring all students living on campus to purchase a meal plan.

In response to Gray’s comments relating to finances, Blocklove said she was “shocked that Brandeis values the economics of a situation more than it does its students’ needs.”

Grey replied, “We work really tirelessly daily to try to meet as many of your needs as we can,” but explained that the university has limited resources and must think logistically about spending.

Blocklove then asked why, if so many students have responded negatively to the current meal system, the university is requiring more students to participate. In response, Gray said he believes there are many students satisfied with the meal plans and apologized that he cannot please everyone. “Anytime you change something you’re likely to have some people that appreciate the change and some who wish we could go back to the way in was. We can’t be all things to all people,” said Gray.

Margolin then returned to the subject of student involvement in shaping the contract with Sodexo, stating, “Talks did happen with the Student Union and students, but very late in the game. Student Union wasn’t involved with negotiations and shaping the meal plans, it was more informing and confirming once the meals plans were decided. There was a large concern about students being cut out.” Margolin notes changes have been made and, moving forward, students are playing a much larger role in discussion, which he greatly appreciates.

Two other students in attendance were the President Jane Qian ’15 and Vice President Matthew Schwartz ’15 of the newly recognized Recovery Network, a nationwide club which encourages universities to donate (rather than discard) unused food. According to Monaghan, Brandeis students use approximately 70 percent of their meals. Schwartz asked whether Sodexo purchased based on this assumption or on the premise of 100 percent use.

Monaghan illustrated his method of tracking student consumption. He works to ensure there is the appropriate quantity of food and staff members present during the business periods of the day. With the weather changing, students have begun eating dinner earlier, thus Monaghan ensures there is enough food present to accommodate the crowds. Monaghan said he does not purchase based on 100 percent consumption, but rather based on careful calculations, in order to reduce waste. He did state that Sodexo discards some food each day.

The representatives from the Recovery Network said they would like to know what procedures are currently in place concerning food waste.

Monaghan said, “We do support some local programs in the community,” though he did not specify what sorts. He also affirmed he is very open to speaking with students about waste.

During the forum, Monaghan probed the audience for their thoughts on the best way to steer dining services. Students provided a variety of responses. One student drew upon a common thread, proposing alterations to the meal plans which would give students more points or allow them to use meals in more places.

Blocklove praised unique items in the dining halls, such as the apple cider in Sherman. Similarly, another student proposed specialty stations, with people cooking different foods depending on the day. He suggested theme nights, to celebrate different holidays or ethnic cuisines. Blocklove also suggested the addition of spice bars, in additional to traditional condiments.

An enthusiastic Gray replied, “That’s an outstanding idea … thank you for that.” Another student proposed the addition of Sriracha to the dining halls, which Gray felt was an excellent proposal as well. One forum participant asked about meal periods and multiple swipes. Gray professed that he believes three meal periods is quite insufficient.

“We’re moving toward a four or five meal period definition of the day which will significantly change and increase people’s ability to swipe,” said Gray, asserting he hopes to implement the new program quite soon.

At the close of the discussion, participants discussed the impending renovations to Sherman. Gray explained that few changes have been formalized and that many upgrades will be made to failing kitchen equipment.

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