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Dining Services Staff Discuss Upcoming Changes

Liz Stasior, Contributing Writer

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Starting in the fall of 2017, a swipe system in Proctor, Ross, and Atwater will track when and where Middlebury students eat. This system will provide accurate counts for dining services in terms of preparing food as well as reducing waste. The system will also prevent guests not on the meal plan from eating without paying in the dining halls, which will save the College money. A portion of the money saved will go back to the students, and each student will receive $50 on their Middcard to spend at Middlebury dining retail locations each semester.

The College will continue to offer one, unlimited meal plan in the fall of 2017, though that might change in the spring or fall of 2018, depending on the verdict of the SGA appointed student Dining Committee. Multiple meal plans would give students the option of using their official dining plans to frequent other dining, retail locations like The Grille, 51 Main, or Rehearsals Café.  Regardless of any new meal plans offered, though, Middlebury will continue to have one comprehensive fee for every student on a plan, according to Dan Detora, Executive Director of Food Services Operations at Middlebury.

Whether students choose the unlimited plan in the dining halls or another plan that includes retail options, they would pay the same fee. This would ensure students never feel forced to choose a dining plan for financial reasons. Students have expressed their desire not to limit access to Middlebury dining based on cost. “I value the fact that the current dining meal plan system puts everyone on an equal playing field,” Deborah Leedy ’18 said.

In terms of swipe systems, Middlebury is the only school in the NESCAC currently without one. Also, out of the many dining operations in The National Association of College & University Food Services, Middlebury stands apart. “We’re the only ones that don’t have someone there to swipe cards or don’t require students to swipe cards that I know of,” Detora said.

As a result, Middlebury has less access to data for the purpose of running dining services than any other school in the NESCAC – and far less than the majority of those in the country. This data could inform food purchasing, preparation, and waste management, attached to the $3.2 million that Middlebury spends on food annually.

“From a food waste standpoint, it’s difficult to determine how many people we’re going to feed at a particular time,” Detora said. “[Adding a swipe system] will allow us to get accurate counts, accurate production records, really minimize our ordering and our waste to the fullest.” 

Chris Laframboise, commons chef in Ross Dining Hall, noted how accurate data would help dining hall staff with food preparation. “With that count we will be able to forecast with a great degree of accuracy for future meals,” he said. “This will help us control what and how much we prep and how much we cook, and that will help to control waste at the end of the day. We will also be able to look at certain timeframes to see how many students are coming in and when and how much we should be cooking at that time.”

Currently, Ross Dining Hall has a laser beam counter on the door to track student dining. “Right now our counter system is very basic,” said Brent Simons, Ross Commons’ dining room manager. “Whenever a customer goes through it breaks the beam, and we get a number….The system adds a count if a student walks in or out of the entrance to Ross – regardless if it’s their first or second or fifth time eating for any given meal. In addition, the system cannot determine at what time a student dined in Ross. Proctor and Atwater dining also have such laser systems.”

There’s also the problem of non-students eating for free in the dining halls, without a system to determine who’s entering at the door. At the moment, dining services offers full access to the dining halls for guests with a $5 price tag attached to breakfast, $7 to lunch, and $9 to dinner for the academic year. “We have a duty to the student body to make sure that people who are eating here are somehow related to the college,” Simons said. “We have sports teams that pop in on the weekend and eat for free. All that does is take money away and food away from the students that are here.”

During homecoming weekend this past fall, for example, alumni ate an estimated 400 free meals. Under this system, students end up paying for guests to eat without charge, a cost that amounts to thousands of dollars per year in expenses that could otherwise go back into the system and benefit students. With the implementation of the swipe, guests would pay at the door via the new electronic system, according to Keith Piper from Ross Dining. The open invitation to faculty for dining with a student (without personal charge) would remain open.

Both the swipe system and the advent of meal plans are designed to resolve ongoing challenges for dining services, including traffic in the dining halls. Ross dining hall can seat 340 at a time, and Proctor has room for 520 not including Redfield, according to Detora. Usually, for this sort of dining operation, the dining hall should turn over just one time per meal (so Ross would seat 680 students at a given meal and Proctor 1,040 students). However, “Every night we do well over 1,200” in Ross, Detora said. “This is our biggest challenge,” Simons said. “With Atwater being closed, I think they did 1,400 people in there last night.”

Detora explained, “[The Dining halls] were designed when the commons houses were just getting going. There were supposed to be five dining halls.” However, given the expense of three dining halls, the building stopped. “With that, storage is an issue in all three dining halls,” Detora continued regarding the location of storage rooms and freezers. “They’re downstairs and around the corner” in Atwater Dining and downstairs below the dining hall in both Ross and Proctor.  “We have a lot of strains, accidents because of the way we’re storing and bringing food from one location to the other.” The dishwashing room in Ross is also small relative to the amount of dishes it must clean daily.

In every dining hall, preparation and cooking space is limited. The prep room in Ross, just off the dining hall, is smaller than many classrooms – hence, the cooking stations out in the servery area at Ross. In Proctor, a challenge is the location of cooking facilities under the dining hall. Staff must transport prepared food up to the servery via an elevator.

In the end, the dining hall’s long lines, lack of seating and pressure on dining staff, have led up to the consideration of future meal plans. The gist of the idea is to provide alternative spaces for students to dine around campus without spending their own money out of pocket, Detora said. If students could dine at Rehearsals Café, The Grille or 51 Main via their meal plan, these spaces may seem more appealing.

“We’re hopefully going to renovate Rehearsals and Wilsons this summer,” Detora said. Considerations include a wrap shop with high quality deli meats for Rehearsals Café. Detora also described the possibility of “really fresh bagels from a local bake shop, and an assortment of kinds of cream cheeses” as an alternative breakfast option for students.

During the upcoming school year, the student Dining Committee will vote on the decision of introducing new meal plans as well as the specifics of what those plans would include. 

Committee Chair Elisa Gan ’20 said, “We define the kind of meal plans that the swiping system could offer. The committee has decided to offer an unlimited-only meal plan with fifty dollars credit for a transition period in the fall of 2017. We are hoping to gauge students’ responses and review the meal plan options for the spring.”  The SGA will also vote on the implementation of new meal plans before any are put in place. 

Examples of plans for Middlebury include the unlimited plan, a 14-meal plan, or a 10-meal plan. Each plan, except the unlimited one, would include an amount of money to spend at other Middlebury retail locations, like the Grille and 51 Main. Every meal plan would also include a specific number of guest passes per semester for students to invite family, friends, or alumni into Middlebury dining.   

With alterations to the system approaching, dining operations looks to provide the ideal experience for students and staff.  “Hopefully we can calm people’s fears about the change,” Simon said.

1 Comment

One Response to “Dining Services Staff Discuss Upcoming Changes”

  1. Hope Kelley on May 6th, 2017 9:08 am

    I know there are more important issues in today’s world than Middlebury’s dining plan but as an alum and current parent, I am concerned about the changes.

    While I like the fact that other colleges’ sports teams will no longer be eating for free, I do feel that each Middlebury student should be allotted a generous number of guest passes for visiting friends, siblings and parents. It is important for students to be able to share their cafeteria experience with guests as it reinforces the welcoming atmosphere of the campus and gives the guest a window into the student’s daily life.

    I also strongly advocate for maintaining unlimited meals. I don’t want students doing the mental math of which meal should I skip because I only have 14 meals per week or thinking I wont grab a coffee and bagel before class because then I can’t have a full breakfast after class when I have more time or realizing that his/her friends are at a different dining hall but not being able to switch to that dining hall because it would be an additional swipe or over eating because they are thinking that they can’t reenter the dining hall for 4 hours or not going to the bathroom mid-meal because they wont be able to re-enter. The cafeteria is a place where community is built and you don’t want students not feeling welcome at all times.

    $50/semester wouldn’t go very far at any of the mentioned eateries. More a tease than an actual option.

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Dining Services Staff Discuss Upcoming Changes