Dinner is served

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    The topic of food on campus is like the lack of facility space and student parking – it’s endlessly debated. Students often complain about the variety of dining plans and the cost of food, but TCU administrators, Sodexho managers and Student Government Association officers maintain that students are getting a better deal than they think.

    A common complaint among 100 TCU students interviewed was that dining plans cannot be used at surrounding community restaurants, like many other university students are able to do.

    “It is our expectation that we will do that,” said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Don Mills, who added that some form of this should be available to students a year from now.

    A majority of students questioned said they are displeased with the dining plans offered by TCU. They said there is a lack of healthy food options and a variety of food in general, that TCU’s plans are too expensive, and that students are not getting their money’s worth.

    Something to Think About

    SGA President David Watson said he thinks TCU does a good job of providing menu variety. When students eat at the same places on campus every day, it is only natural for them to feel like there is a lack of variety, Watson said. If students were required to eat at their favorite restaurants every day for every meal, they would get tired of that as well, he said.

    As for dining plans being too expensive, Alissa Garner, chairwoman of SGA’s dining services committee, said she had the same feelings as many students do until she visited other campuses and realized that TCU does have some of the least expensive dining plans.

    “Students have to understand that the committee, in conjunction with Sodexho, has extensively researched food pricing,” Garner said. “According to the results, the food offered by TCU is portionally larger and comparably priced to national eateries.”

    Sodexho, which operates TCU’s dining services, is a food and facilities management services company that operates in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Sodexho offers food services to more than 900 college campuses nationwide, and also serves schools and corporate businesses for everyday catering and special events.

    The committee meets with Sodexho once a week to discuss issues pertaining to dining services and concerns students have, Garner said. The committee also designs a menu for every Tuesday in The Main, she added.

    Anyone is welcome to join the committee meetings, which are at 4:30 p.m. every Monday, Garner said. Once a student has attended two meetings, he or she is eligible to vote.

    “It’s highly important for students to be involved or otherwise they have no platform or credentials to voice their concerns,” Garner said. “It’s difficult for our committee, particularly, to hear complaints and have students do nothing about them.”

    A Challenge to Administrators

    Watson said the dining plans are reasonable when one takes into consideration that Sodexho operates several locations around campus and that with each added location food costs rise.

    Mills said TCU decides how much money is needed to cover the costs of maintaining and running its dining facilities, as well paying its employees. This is how the base rate for dining plans is determined and is the reason why any leftover money at the end of a school year on students’ cards is nonrefundable, he said.

    Mills attributed price increases to a variety of factors.

    “The biggest is energy,” Mills said. “There’s an increase in the cost of selling food – energy is part of it, health care is part of it – employee benefits.”

    Relatively few hands touch an apple bought from the grocery store, whereas at Frog Bytes, that apple has passed through several hands, Mills said.

    TCU also operates food service in a variety of locations regardless of profitability, Mills said. Some locations are open over holidays, late at night or early in the morning for breakfast – all times that see little business, he said.

    “Meal plans here have never been designed to cover more than 60 percent (of the meals a student will consume),” Mills said. “The biggest complaint we get from parents is that their children have to add on to the meal plan.”

    Rick Flores, general manager of TCU Dining Services, described the difficulties he faces as a food provider at a school where a declining balance is the primary form of payment for food.

    Many schools, like SMU and Baylor University, operate under what is most commonly referred to as a board plan, where students pay for a certain number of meals per day per week. At TCU, each student’s school ID works like a debit card and each item at various dining locations on campus is priced separately, enabling students to pay only for what they want. The ID card keeps track of the amount of funds in the student’s account.

    For Flores and his staff, who are all employees of Sodexho, the declining balance provides a challenge.

    “I don’t know when you’re going to be here, if you’re going to be here,” Flores said. “I could prepare a large lunch but if only half the students come, then I’ve wasted all that food.”

    Mills said the question of value is always the most difficult and it is a negative byproduct of a declining balance.

    “I think people see their money being spent – and it can be spent fast – and they say, ‘I’m not getting my money’s worth,'” he said. “There are perceptions of value and when you break it down, it’s a little bit different.”

    Mills said a student eating at the cafeteria might buy a $2 bottle of water, for example, and then notice an $8 tab for the meal and think, “This is too expensive.”

    In the Future

    Students who were questioned were equally divided on whether they preferred a pay-per-item plan or a board plan. Mills said TCU hopes to implement a hybrid of the two, where students would pay a flat amount, which would be more than what they pay now, but they could have as many meals as they wanted in a week.

    The board plan would only apply to the dining location in the new student union when it opens, but students would also have their declining balance dollars to use at the other locations on campus.

    “We think that combination would best serve students and would be economically best for TCU, and there would be enough incentive for Sodexho to have high quality,” Mills said.

    What Other Campuses Have to Offer

    SMU and Baylor, who use Aramark for their dining services, have plans similar to the hybrid system. Aramark, which is one of Sodexho’s rival companies, is a world-known food, uniform and management services company.

    Bill Detweiler, associate vice president of business services at SMU, says surveys done annually show SMU students are generally pleased, with a minimum of complaints.

    Requiring students living on campus to have a board plan is important but having a combination of set meals with a declining balance is essential to the college experience, Detweiler said.

    Gentra Cartwright, a senior communications specialist major at Baylor, says that even though she lives off campus, she has purchased a dining plan every year. She says it is not only convenient to eat on campus, but the quality of food is excellent as well.

    The average calculated price per meal at Baylor is $7 and there is nowhere else to eat close to campus for that price and quality, Cartwright said. The atmosphere is caf‚-style rather than a cafeteria and there are not just underclassman taking advantage of the different dining locations, she added.

    In the next few years, TCU students will see changes in the dining plans, from being able to use declining balance dollars in off-campus locations to the new union building bringing students a system similar to SMU and Baylor.

    TCU’s contract with Sodexho is ending in 2007, but no plans for renewal have been set, and talks are still in the beginning stages, Mills said. TCU will most likely stay with Sodexho if a mutual agreement can be met, he added.