Lower Usdan gains vegan action station, changes coming to Brandeis dining

September 20, 2019

Students, faculty and staff dining at Brandeis can now enjoy a permanent vegan action station in one of its dining halls, Lower Usdan, which opened Monday and is here to stay, according to the Student Union Senator-at-Large and Dining Committee Chair Nancy Zhai ’22.

The action station opened Monday with a jackfruit sandwich bar, where students could watch their meals prepared in front of them and eat an optional side of black bean soup. Preparing meals in front of students, said Zhai, helps students with dietary restrictions and allergies feel more secure about what they’re eating.

“The action station is a really good way for students to see how the food is actually cooked so students will feel like… ‘I saw my food was cooked in that way, so I feel it’s safer to eat,’” said Zhai. “Students don’t really feel that way if they don’t really see how the food is cooked.”

“They might not feel that sense of security, so I feel like the action station is the best way to show that there is a transparent process,” continued Zhai.

The station was prepared by Rose Forrest, a vegan chef at Brandeis, said Zhai. The station is just one of the many changes coming to Brandeis dining. The Brandeis Hoot reported two weeks ago that the university is considering proposals for a new dining services program, as the current provider’s contract, Sodexo, will end in 2020. And members of the dining committee, including Class of 2022 Senator Topaz Fragoso ’22, want to bring a new healthy restaurant to campus.

Zhai spoke about the changes, outlining her vision for a new Brandeis dining experience as healthier, with more diverse options that everyone can enjoy.

“Even students without allergies will still appreciate more diverse, healthy and nutritious options,” Zhai said.

The new provider comes after months of reported issues between Brandeis students and Sodexo, including several mislabeled foods in the dining halls that contained allergens that caused some students to become ill. Sodexo has since updated labelling procedures, according to an earlier Brandeis Hoot article.

Zhai wants students to come to her when they have complaints and to come to dining meetings to discuss food issues at Brandeis.

“I’m always willing to hear from students, to really make sure that students have their best dining experience possible at Brandeis,” Zhai said.

The university is working towards creating a system that can receive Request For Proposals (RPFs) and will receive proposals from vendors in December. But before seeing the proposals, both the administration and the Student Union are working to host a public forum in October for students to discuss what they would want from a food provider, said Zhai. Zhai encouraged students to attend the forum and voice their hopes and concerns—though if students can’t make the forum, there will be an online option.

Brandeis will likely consider six to eight vendors initially, wrote Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stewart Uretsky to The Hoot in an email, and will narrow the options down to three to four to provide final operating and financial proposals. Sodexo could remain as the provider, wrote Uretsky.

“Going out for an RFP allows a fresh look at the entire program. This will generate information that will be incredibly valuable whether we renew with Sodexo or select a new vendor,” wrote Uretsky.

After the vendors have been narrowed down, said Zhai, they will be evaluated on two main factors: how much a vendor can serve students who have different dietary needs and if the vendor is within the university budget.

Zhai and Uretsky both anticipate a change to meal plan structures, with Zhai hoping to account for student concerns over high meal plan prices.

“The outcome of meal plan offerings will be a product of community input and vendor experience and support,” wrote Uretsky to The Hoot.

A potential new provider also opens routes for a new restaurant on campus. Fragoso has been working on the initiative for a new restaurant that provides a healthier option for all Brandeis students, she said. While Fragoso has been in contact with a restaurant, her project is still in very early stages, she said.

“I’m trying to eat healthy, and I found once I started doing that [that] it’s really hard,” Fragoso said. “Why aren’t there more food options?” She continued, “A lot of people are complaining, I’m finding it hard to eat healthy, why not do something about it?”

Fragoso hopes a new restaurant on campus will allow students to eat healthier and encourages students to visit the vegan action station in Usdan.

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