By Benjamin Engle
Union College Dining Services, managed by Sodexo, is in the planning stages of evaluating and redeveloping the meal plan and dining experience for students.
Dining Services will go through a fact-based decision making process comprised of research from students, staff and administrators. This information will be gathered on campus through a series of focus groups.
The current meal plan has been in place for a number of years and has not been altered in anyway.
“We need to examine the meal plan,” stated Dining Services Director David Gaul.
Gaul is currently researching various meal plan solutions that are offered through Sodexo. In addition to the traditional style plan that Union currently utilizes, Gaul is investigating a “market basket” meal plan which incorporates various styles of meal plans and a carte blanch-style which has no limitation on swipes per week. He is also examining Sodexo’s “go green” meal plan in which students have the opportunity to win a grant that goes towards green efforts in dining services.
“I think [the go green meal plan] has so much tie-in on this campus and would give students ownership in Dining Services,” he said. Though the new meal plans are currently only ideas, an altered meal plan is, according to Gaul, “predicated by what students want.”
Junior Student Trustee Randy Miller ’12, in conjunction with Dining Services, has organized a student focus group to discuss the dining situation. Miller believes that student input and discussion with Gaul will be beneficial to improving the dining at Union.
“By increasing student satisfaction, in theory, it may result in a better atmosphere for these conversations to take place,” added Miller.
Gaul believes that redefining the role of Union’s Executive Chef Will Ray will be important in adding value to the meal plan.
“He is an Executive Chef that will really be evaluating the culinary aspect on campus while being in touch with students. We are utilizing him in a capacity that he needs to be on campus,” said Gaul.
While Dining Services is investigating various alterations to the current meal plan, any approved changes cannot be incorporated for the fall term since students have already gone through the housing lottery process and signed meal contracts for fall 2011 term. Gaul states that any changes are at least a year out and are relative for fall 2012.
While the financial aspects of the current meal plan have been called into question, it will not be negotiated in the focus group.
Miller states that the research conducted for an opinion piece that ran in the Concordiensis “illuminated a simultaneous effort that was being worked on ‘behind the scenes’ with the new Director of Dining.”
“The formula for meal plans is quite complex and proprietary, though there are a lot of factors built into a meal plan,” Gaul said. “Nobody thinks of a student as a dollar sign, but there are costs—facilities, energy costs—other variables than food and labor costs.”
While the cost of the meal plan has been debated, Gaul agrees that declining balance, also known as “flex,” needs to be investigated.
“I don’t know what has happened in the past, though it would be logical to get what is equivalent in flex,” Gaul added.
Gaul stated that he is always looking to implement new ideas to add value to the meal plan. Even though Gaul has not spent a full term at Union, he is already implementing changes and will continue to do so in the coming weeks.
Dining Services is adding soft serve and non-fat yogurt machines to both Upperclass and West Dining Halls. While the electric hookups have been installed in Upperclass and West, Dining Services must wait for the product to arrive and for the preventative maintenance to occur before putting the machines into service. Gaul hopes to have the machines operational by the end of the term, but definitely by the beginning of the fall term.
“We are working fast and hard on adding value to the meal plan,” he said.
Gaul has many ideas for adding value to the meal plan by having stations, such as an all-day waffle bar and an all-day make-your-own eggs bar.
“It’s the little things that make a big difference,” he added.
Instituting the “Simply To Go” program, which is currently available in retail dining locations such as Dutch and O3, into the meal plan-based dining facilities is another option Gaul is investigating. Since it is unique that Union has a common lunch hour, which creates a lot of traffic and slow service, the new progra would allow students to pick various pre-packaged items in the dining hall to avoid long meal lines.
In preparation for fall 2012 meal planning, the Senior Director of Marketing at Sodexo will research Union’s needs and desires using a three-tiered program called “Customer IQ.” This will help to create a specific meal plan for college campuses by determining students’ eating patterns according to residential zip code and mapping the campus to determine where students spend most of their time during the week.
While the Union student typically only spends four years on campus, Gaul believes that meal plans need to change with the times: “Every year, we need to investigate ideas to keep it fresh. Five to seven years old is very old for a meal plan. It take some time to [create a new plan] since we ask questions and model plans.”
Additionally, Gaul stated that Sodexo typically tries to refresh dining halls every five years, though doesn’t believe Upperclass has been renovated since at least 2003. He is excited to start discussions regarding the redesign and expansion of Union’s dining facilities. Similar to the meal plan discussion, Dining Services will solicit input from students and have more focus groups in the future.