The Problems and Progress with Millsaps Dining Services

by Adria Walker

by Adria Walker

news editor

Millsaps students who have a dining plan have the option to eat in the Cafeteria, at Reuben’s or at Ecoground’s. Other than the cafeteria, which has a menu that has a bit of variety day-to-day, the food options on-campus are relatively consistent without much diversity in the selections.

Matt Binion  is the director of student services and facilities, which means he oversees dining services, in addition to the bookstore and post office. He also supervises construction projects on campus, assessment for the college and insurance. Binion has held this position for two and a half years, though he has been with the college for eight.

Millsaps outsources the dining services through Aramark’s higher education program.

“We have a contract with (Aramark) to provide food services, including residential dining—so the meal plan—and catering. We  pay them to provide those services and they source the food,” Binion said. Cafeteria workers, too, are employed through Aramark.

Binion says that Aramark, and other services like Aramark, focus solely on food service, allowing the college or institution with whom they have a contract to orient their time and energy on other things.

According to their website, Aramark Corporation evolved out of Davre Davidson’s business of selling peanuts out of his Dodge in the mid-1930s. A decade later, Davidson and his brother were operating Davidson Brothers, reportedly, one of the largest vending corporations in California. By the later 1950s, the Davidson brothers and William Fishman combined their businesses, creating Automatic Retailers of America (ARA), which by 1968 was serving over 10,000 athletes, fans and officials who participated in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico. In the times since, ARA, now known as Aramark, has evolved into an international conglomerate that provides dining and facilities services for correctional facilities, most notably  the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (http://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/something-still-stinks-in-michigan-and-ohios-prison-kitchens/Content?oid=2396672;  http://www.bucyrustelegraphforum.com/story/news/local/2015/12/16/firings-plague-ohio-prison-food-vendor-aramark/77416906/ ); conference centers; convention centers; stadiums, arenas and amphitheaters; hospitals and healthcare facilities; K-12 schools and districts, most notably Chicago Public Schools (https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160608/downtown/principals-teachers-cry-foul-over-new-cps-aramark-contract) and Wichita Falls Independent School District (http://archive.timesrecordnews.com/news/education/wfisd-drops-aramark-admin-feels-lied-to-and-deceived-272f1c64-3e8e-6841-e053-0100007f2401-362978451.html ); and colleges and universities—including Millsaps College.

This is the third year of a six-year contract with Aramark. Prior to working with Aramark, Binion says that Millsaps contracted Valley Services, Inc., with which the school had a partnership for over 30  years. Binion says Millsaps switched from Valley to Aramark due, in part, to students expressing a desire for a change.

“Our students were very much dissatisfied with the overall student dining experience,” Binion said.

Another reason for the change is that, according to Binion, when an institution outsources services to another company, the company is investing capital into the college.

“All of the renovations that have been done… before the cafeteria, before the Leggett Center, all of those areas were renovated at the cost of Aramark, not by the college… When you hire a new food service vendor, or when you sign on to a new contract, it’s very common for that arrangement to include renovations of your current facilities,” Binion said.

Binion says that, at the time Millsaps entered into a contractual arrangement with Aramark , the school was looking for ways to improve the dining experience and to create the space that is now the Leggett Living Room. Through the contract, Aramark funded 95 percent  of the renovations.

Amy Abbott, Food Services Director, said, “We gave the school 1.6 million dollars for renovation’s costs. That is typical, or typical of what I’ve seen our company do.”.

Binion believes that there are three types of student opinions when it comes to food services.  Binion says that there are pessimistic students, who will be unhappy with whatever the cafeteria provides; content students, who simply take and accept what they are given, which Binion considers to be the largest group of students; and students who are genuinely passionate about the food the cafeteria serves. “Food services is always mixed. You have students who absolutely hate it and are going to hate everything you do about it, because… students eat there seven days a week every single meal,” Binion said.

Binion considers the Aramark contract beneficial to campus, and an improvement from the previous company.

Students generally want to see improvements around campus, including in the cafeteria, but those improvements require resources. Due to continued theft of cafeteria dishes, Abbott says money is being allocated towards replacing cafeteria dishes rather than towards other services. “We spend about $12,000 a year on dishes, and that’s money I would love to put back into different food options, but that is money that is leaving,” Abbott said.

Are Millsaps Students Eating Though?

Bailey Smith is a sophomore Student Body Association senator  and a member of the SBA dining committee and the SBA environmental committee . As a member of the dining committee, Smith, and other members, speak with students about changes they would like to see made to the available dining services, then they discuss those suggestions with Abbott.

“[SBA] brings to me concerns of the students, so we discuss those concerns, and also things that they like. We talk about anything new that’s going on with us, anything new that’s upcoming. Even this past semester, we did a lot of upgrades to our menus… so we discussed that,” Abbot said.

Smith says that Abbott is receptive to the suggestions posited by student leaders, though that doesn’t necessarily translate into the changes taking form.

“She’s really open to everything that we suggest or say that people want to see be done, but it just doesn’t always fall through as confidently as she says they will,” Smith said.

An example of this, Smith, who is a vegan, says, is that students have complained about inconsistent or false labeling in the cafeteria.

“I don’t know what I can eat sometimes, because there [are] no labels… so I legitimately can’t eat. My family pays thousands of dollars so I can go here, and eat the food, so it’s difficult to see that,” Smith said.

Smith, says that the lack of clear labeling is particularly concerning to him because he fears it might deter potential students from choosing Millsaps.

“[If someone is vegan or vegetarian], they go in there and they don’t know what they can eat, and that’d be a deterrent to future students,” Smith said.

Smith says that Abbott listened to and seemed to understand his concerns, though he does not think that her listening to him translated into real action. “Most of the time I go in there for breakfast, there are not labels on anything,” Smith said. In addition to labeling, over the homecoming weekend and the days leading to it, the soymilk machine disappeared from the cafeteria, preventing vegans and lactose intolerant students from being able to safely consume milk, though Abbott says that there was soymilk available. Abbott says that the soymilk machine broke, but there was only an absence of the machine for three or four days.

“I would say about 90 percent of the things that are brought to my attention are things that I’m able to address… I’m willing and open to most things that are brought to me, so if it’s something that can be done reasonably, I have no problem,” Abbott said.

Abbott says that SBA requested having the fruit and yogurt bar out all day and that the cafeteria changed to accommodate that. She also says that easy changes happen within the week, though longer ones may happen the next semester.

Smith says that, at one point, he was in the entrée line and asked a worker about the lack of labels in the cafeteria, to which, he said, the worker said that he couldn’t label the foods without his manager being present. “It seems like what we  really talked to her about didn’t really make a change at all,” Smith said.

Abbott says that she labels everything, but if an ingredient is substituted from a menu item, she does not include a label. “If you’re not sure what’s in there, just ask one of the employees. If the employee doesn’t know, they’re going to come find one of the supervisors or one of the managers,” Abbott said.

Danger Zone: Eating with Caution in Shared Food Spaces

Binion says that, if a student has an allergy that is extreme enough for the cross-contamination of, say, tomatoes and spinach to lead to a severe allergic reaction, that student has a responsibility to disclose of that allergy with the cafeteria. After notification, Binion says that the cafeteria will make the student a special meal. “That has always been a tricky situation, in that we have seen an increase in the number of students arriving at college who have special dietary needs, whether that be health driven or medically driven, because we have students that want to choose to eat healthy and we have students who can only eat certain things, and those are two different issues,” Binion said.

Because students don’t want to be singled-out or treated differently from their peers, Binion believes that some students don’t disclose their dietary needs to the cafeteria staff.

In an attempt to cut down on cross-contamination of gluten products, says the grill will begin separating items.

Though student dining complaints persist, Binion says that the switch to Aramark has been good for students and for the school.

“Under Aramark, we have had far fewer foodborne illnesses—students getting sick, cross contamination, things like that, than we had before. The food safety that Aramark brings to us is a much higher standard that we were getting before,” Binion said.

Currently, Millsaps offers Cafeteria, Ecogrounds and Reuben’s for on-campus dining. For a vegetarian, vegan or someone else with a restrictive diet, each of these options leaves something to be desired.

Reuben’s, for instance, has mozzarella sticks, grilled cheeses and  veggie burgers. Ecogrounds has a Mayan mocha coffee that is milk-free and a spinach and feta croissant, along with other pastries that are suitable for vegetarians, but that might have dairy or eggs, preventing lactose intolerant and vegan students from eating those options.

Lunch is the best time to eat in the cafeteria, according to Smith. “Lunch usually has a lot of choices… Everything by the salad bar is open, [there are] a lot of foods on the entrée bar, usually it’s very good, too. [They’ll have] beef macaroni, or something, that’s vegan—they’re actually using alternative meat now,” Smith said.

Millsaps offers various ways for students to get involved in the decision making about on-campus food options, including Voice of the Consumer, an online place for students to voice concerns, and an end-of-the-year campus-wide survey, that would ideally allow the campus to overhaul various faucets of campus life. “What we have found is once a student submits a complaint or request, via that platform, and our managers respond back, the students don’t ever respond,” Binion said. “We need students to be involved in that conversation.”

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