ANALYSIS: Students share their experience with the CMU dining halls
Another Sunday in Robinson Residential Restaurant led to another day of disappointment. The sausage and egg sandwich that I ate was a wannabe Egg McMuffin, but somehow blander. The tater tots I had for the side were not enticing, either.
Mediocre food is something I’ve gotten used to at CMU, so I dealt with it and ate my meal.
Then I saw something squirming on my plate.
It was a little green bug. Its tiny legs were flailing about. A brief look at the lettuce I put on my sandwich showed more bugs – dead ones. One was also on the English muffin.
I found this all rather unfortunate and shocking. I had already munched down most of the sandwich.
I was curious about two things: “What kind of bugs did I just eat?” and “Were there other stories like this on campus?”
My first question was easily answered with a Google search: Aphids.
My second question required me to do some reporting. In the following months I talked to many other students about their opinions of campus dining and the food that is served here. Some felt satisfied with the food they receive as part of their meal plans.
Other people seemed quite dissatisfied. I wondered if that was a reflection of the company that runs the dining halls on campus: Aramark.
The aphid incident happened in October 2018. Over the next few months, other students shared similar stories with me – receiving undercooked food, finding bugs in meals or other food quality and safety complaints.
CMU and Aramark have been working together since 1995 after the university privatized its food service program and hired the international food service company. Aramark will be serving food at CMU until June 30, 2022 when the current contract ends.
After looking at satisfaction surveys, the student body seems less-than-enthused about what Aramark is dishing out. Telling Aramark's side of the story proved difficult. I wasn’t able to speak to Aramark managers about dining hall concerns. They were only willing to give answers to questions submitted by email.
I still don't have all my answers, but I’ve decided to share some of my reporting experiences. Let's dive into the relationship between Aramark and CMU and what students think of the food they're being served.
Aramark at CMU & Dining Hall Satisfaction
At the end of 1994, CMU outsourced its dining services to Aramark. Before then, dining services were done in-house and run by the university. After the dining director left in 1994, the university made the decision to scrap that position and move forward with privatizing campus dining, according to an article from Central Michigan Life.
This long-standing business relationship has been positive for both sides, said Executive Director of Auxiliary Services Cal Seelye and Aramark Resident District Manager Tyson Dubay in emails. According to the most recent contract from 2012, Aramark will remain CMU's main food vendor until 2022. According to the 2018-2019 academic year operating budget, the estimated amount CMU budgeted for residence hall and retail dining services was about $8.5 million.
“(We) rely on them to provide our students with healthy, delicious meals in safe, clean environments across our campus,” Seelye said in an email.
Aramark operates the four main cafeterias on campus: Robinson Residential Restaurant, Merrill Residential Restaurant, Fresh Food Company and Real Food on Campus (RFoC). The company also operates other on-campus dining services such as Classic Fare Catering, on-campus convenience stores and locations like Java City, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Starbucks.
Aramark District Marketing Manager Nikki Smith told me the company's 2019 DiningStyles survey shows the “overall experience” of students who eat at CMU dining halls is greater than the national average of all other Aramark higher education accounts in the United States. CMU has a 63% overall satisfaction rating compared to the 54% national average. CMU's overall satisfaction in 2019 is an improvement from 2018, when it was at 56%.
Every two years, the Office of Residence Life conducts a survey measuring the satisfaction of various aspects of life on campus such as community environment, hall or apartment staff and safety and security. Dining services is also discussed. The 2018 student satisfaction survey shows dining is rated last by students when compared to all other aspects of residence life.
Here is how the survey works: The Office of Residence Life sends out email surveys to students every other year, according to Kathleen Gardner, director of the Office of Residence Life. CMU's results are compared with other universities in CMU’s Carnegie classification based on residence life factors.
The mean for these factors is 5.5. Anything that scores under it is below average compared to other schools for that factor, and vice versa if it scores above. Compared to the other universities that participated in the survey, CMU dining services scored below average in satisfaction with a score of 4.77. That means the mean score of students surveyed is lower than other schools.
More specific aspects of dining services at CMU tell the same stories. While service from “dining staff” and “dining environment” were ranked and around the average, other aspects didn’t fare as well. “Cleanliness of dining area,” “Variety of meal plan,” “Value of your meal plan,” “Quality of food” and “Dining services hours” rank below average in the survey.
Some students I spoke to shared opinions that supported the survey data.
Lake Orion senior Tyler Modock said he eats at the dining halls every day. It’s cafeteria food, Modock said, so he doesn’t really expect an out-of-this-world dining experience. It’s rare for him to see an entree that makes him go, “Oh, that’s pretty good.”
“They’ll do something fancy once and they’ll never do it again,” Modock said.
Miami senior Stevenson Altidor is a transfer student from Miami Day College and is also the host of the Central Michigan Life podcast "The Culture Report." Altidor said Miami Day offered decent food in its cafeteria, which was cheaper. He feels he received more value for his money.
When compared to RFoC, the dining hall he usually eats at, Altidor said it does well for the first two weeks but falls short as the semester goes on. It's a topic he raised on one of his podcasts and Altidor said he received feedback from people who agreed with him. One of the worst meals served is grilled cheese, Altidor said. He expects more variety and quality when he’s paying for a university meal plan.
“I want real food. I don’t want grilled cheese,” Altidor said. “Don’t feed me like I’m 12.”
However, not all the students were as critical. Oak Park junior Pat Riley said the cafeterias get a bad reputation. Riley still goes there for social reasons, despite living off campus.
Royal Oak freshman Amanda Vollhardt said she enjoys the food at the cafeterias and appreciates the variety of meal options, another point I heard a lot from students.
Sheppard Junior Myka Luplow said the food is usually decent and likes that it is customizable.
Lake Isabella freshman Madison Grover said the food at CMU is an improvement over her high school's food because of the healthier options and because there are more meal choices.
"I didn't eat any school lunches at my high school because it was gross. (CMU) is definitely a lot better," Grover said.
However, many of the same students who said they enjoyed the variety also said they found themselves having a repetitive dining experience.
Grover said a lot of the meals she likes from the dining halls are served there frequently – maybe too frequently. Vollhardt said she finds herself eating the same five or so meals over and over.
Luplow has a similar take. She said she also wishes there were more affordable options.
"As customizable as everything is, it's like 'You can have a sandwich, pizza or an omelette,'" Luplow said. "That's the same stuff every week."
Harbor Beach sophomore Kailtlin Brown said the amount of food the dining halls provides does make the price fair, but also said overall the meal plans are too expensive.
Riley said that when he had a dining pass, he didn't like the fact that meal swipes didn't roll over to the next week. Still, he felt he got a good value for the food he received.
Aramark's recent 4.7 dining satisfaction score is higher compared to previous years. In fact, its score has improved every year since receiving its lowest in 2011, Gardner said. Seelye said dining hall eateries also have been taking steps to try to accommodate students who are vegans or who are on gluten-free diets.
“When students come to college, there’s a couple of things they think, and know, they need to complain about,” Seelye said. “(They think) they need to complain about the food, the price of books and parking.”
That might be true. But I also know that my aphid incident isn’t the only dining hall horror story that has happened on this campus.
I didn’t even have to leave the CM Life office to hear more incidents that bugged other members of the staff. There was the one about a fly found in a salad – something I’ve also experienced. A mosquito found in a sandwich from an on-campus convenience store. In a recent staff meeting, my adviser asked the 25 to 30 students present if they’ve had any bugs, hairs, or other nasty things in their food at the dining halls.
Nearly everyone at the meeting raised their hands.
But it's not just the newsroom that has these experiences. Modock once found a bug (not sure what kind, but at this point, does it matter?), crawling through his spinach in one of the dining halls. And yes, there is video of it:
Brown had a similar experience while eating in one of the dining halls. One of her friends got a salad and found a small bug crawling from it onto the edge of the bowl.
Modock also said he has experienced food mislabeling. He’s lactose intolerant and sometimes dishes with dairy in them are not labeled as such.
“They have signs out by stations and the ingredients,” Modock said. “Sometimes they don’t have everything on there, and I’ll just eat it. I’ll learn later that it must’ve had something in there that I shouldn’t have eaten because my stomach (will be) killing me.”
Steve King, director of environmental health at the Central Michigan District Health Department, said any health and food safety concerns at CMU are typical with other area restaurants.
Most of the recent inspection reports show no, or only minor, violations. But there have been some problems. On Jan. 5, 2017 inspectors found evidence of pests in the dish room of RFoC. The report said there was evidence of ants and ant hills in that area and that proper pest control was needed.
Smith also said in an email that Aramark “takes all customer concerns about food quality very seriously and investigate every concern that is brought to our attention.”
Dubay also said: “Nothing is more important to CMU Dining than food safety and the customer experience we deliver. We take food safety very seriously and work closely with the university and the Health Department to ensure that the food served at CMU is of the highest quality and prepared within the safest environment. Any issues found during routine inspections are addressed and corrected quickly.”
Aramark conducts regular internal inspections and hires “third-party auditors to conduct objective evaluations of practices and safety standards twice a year.”
I asked if I could see these audits.
I couldn't. Smith said the internal audits are “proprietary.”
When it comes to CMU, Seelye said the contract with Aramark has key performance indicators, goals and expectations.
“We meet regularly with our Aramark representatives to ensure we are offering high-quality options for our students,” Seelye said. “We take all health concerns very seriously.”
New students coming to CMU are required to stay on campus for their first two years, thus are required to buy meal plans for those two years. If CMU is going to require students to buy the food, it should come from a menu that students have a say in.
Maybe students should be a bit more loud with their concerns. Recently, students made a lot of noise about donating unused meal swipes at the dining halls. After surveys, protests and a lot of online discussion, students were able to push campus dining to create the "Swipe Bank," which is available this semester. Students experiencing food insecurity will be able to request meal swipes.
Smith also said Aramark has a way of receiving feedback: the Voice of Consumer survey. This survey is a way to gauge student feedback with dining in real time. The survey allows students to score their satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10. If they score a 6 or lower, and want to be contacted, someone at Aramark will follow up with them within 48 hours.
The Office of Residence Life will be conducting its next survey in February 2020 – this month. That means students will have a chance to speak their mind on dining services. Gardner said the survey will be open to students for about six weeks. Whether it's positive or negative feedback, students will be able to share their honest thoughts about the food that is served to them.
If you have opinions, I encourage you to share them.
Students have the power to make change for the better, and that includes asking for better food. Make your opinions loud and obvious to those in charge of dining. If there's something you don't like in the dining halls, don't let this opportunity go by without making some noise. Because if you're tired of eating the food they're serving, stating your mind will be the only way they change it.
If you want to learn more about Aramark's practices outside of CMU, you can read more here.