Students criticize quality, cost for Union’s dining services

EDITOR’S NOTE: View an interactive slideshow by Mckenzie Masters, Life editor, at the end of this story. Also, Alana Hu, staff writer, contributed to this report.
Union students who live on campus may be required to purchase a meal plan, but they aren’t required to like it.
College food has always been the butt of jokes, especially at Union, where on-campus students are required to purchase a meal plan from ARAMARK, the Philadelphia-based provider of Union’s dining services since 1965.
Jessica Christensen, sophomore marketing major, has the meal plan but does not always eat on campus.
“I have 96 swipes left,” Christensen said. “I don’t feel like there are enough healthy options for me to choose [from] with my health issues. I get sick easy when I don’t eat healthy, fresh food, and a lot of the food is frozen or fried, and they have few fresh food options.”
Within its residential restaurant services, ARAMARK offers two concepts for schools: Real Food on Campus, an all-you-can-eat, on-campus restaurant that prepares food in an open-style kitchen, and the Fresh Food Co., featuring dining stations with themes and daily menus.
Brewer Dining Hall participates in the latter concept. In the dining hall, students have the option of choosing from several types of foods, including salads, pizza, stir-fry dishes and homestyle cooking.
ARAMARK also offers food courts and snack bars that feature the foods of national chains such as Starbucks, Chick-fil-A and  Subway.
“These chains are not dining options for Union students because these national brands require a certain amount in sales,” said Tony Meek, Union’s food service director. “The school must guarantee that they will be able to make a certain amount in sales, but as Union is expanding, we are looking into these options.”
Calculations show that with whichever meal plan chosen at Union, each swipe for a meal costs $8 for students, whether they eat in Brewer Dining Hall or at the Lexington Inn. People without a meal plan are charged the same amount.
Despite ARAMARK’s international reach and client diversity, some student diners at Union are not impressed with the university affiliate. Others say that nearby campuses with ARAMARK contracts offer better food.
“If I’m paying $8 a meal for food, it needs to be better quality,” said Richauna Kidd, sophomore accounting major. “There are good days and bad days — mainly bad days. It doesn’t have to be the best food in the world, but it needs to be better than it is. What am I paying for?”
Union administrators, in conjunction with ARAMARK, respond that Union’s contract is similar to contracts most universities have with food service providers.
Each on-campus student at Union spends between $800 and $2,000 per semester on meal plans, depending upon the number of meals purchased.
Nearly 30 percent of Union students — 1,081 people — lived on campus in 2011 and were required to spend at least $1,600 on meal plans that year.
As a result, Dining Services should have made nearly $2 million. But Union’s 2010-2011 990 tax form shows the university spent about $1.7 million on dining services. The exact figure is $1.67 million.
An ARAMARK spokesperson responded regarding the Dining Services figures mentioned above, stating that the amount of money Union takes in for Dining Services is used for more than just purchasing food.
“Union keeps part of those fees for utilities, maintenance equipment replacement, facilities, etc.,” the spokesperson said.
Meek was unable to elaborate further on specific expense amounts, other than what was provided by members of Union’s administration, because he cannot provide contractual information associated with ARAMARK, Meek said.
“I find it odd that we are paying over $30,000 a year (in tuition) and receiving low-quality food,” said Marlene Hickman, sophomore math major. “If I’m going to eat healthy, I want it to at least taste good – which it does not.”
Universities similar in size, such as Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., Belmont University in Nashville, and Christian Brothers University in Memphis, spend almost double the amount Union spent in 2010-2011 for a similarly sized student body.
A breakdown of the amount Belmont students pay is not available because that figure is incorporated into their housing costs.
But Samford University spent $6.7 million on food services through Campus Dining Inc. for nearly half of its 4,800 students, according to that university’s 2010-2011 990 form.
Required meal plans for students at Samford are determined by credit hours. Incoming freshmen and students with fewer than 24 credit hours must purchase the 19-meal-per-week plan, which costs $2,000 each semester.
Those enrolled in more than 24 credit hours can purchase 12 meals per week, costing $1,686 per semester. Those enrolled in more than 64 credit hours may purchase a seven-meals-per-week plan, which costs $1,134 per semester.
Of the 4,800 students enrolled at Samford, those younger than 21 must live on campus and are required to purchase a meal plan.
Lauren Taylor, director of residence life and university services at Samford, said the campus can accommodate 2,315 residents, a figure which suggests that at least half of the student body lives on campus and is enrolled in Samford’s meal plans.
Samford offers a food court option that includes Chick-fil-A, an all-natural yogurt parfait bar and a slushy machine. Students buy these items with “Bulldog Bucks,” an electronic balance of discretionary money available for making additional purchases beyond their meal plans.
Belmont University has more than 6,400 undergraduate students enrolled, about 3,000 more than Union. Belmont spent $5.1 million in 2011 on its contract with Sodexo, a food service provider based in Gaithersburg, Md., which is more than triple the amount spent by Union that                        same year.
At Belmont, those taking fewer than 60 credit hours or who are younger than 21 are required to live on campus and purchase a meal plan with a minimum of 20 meals per week, a plan that costs about $2,000 per semester – meaning that Belmont students do pay more than Union students.
Sodexo offers students four meal plan options: A cafe/food court that sells menu items from Quiznos, WOW Cafe & Wingery and Mein Bowl (chain restaurants); a food court that includes Chick-fil-A, Boar’s Head Deli and a convenience store; and The Corner Court, which sells fresh sandwiches, wraps, smoothies and Starbucks coffee.
An additional coffee shop at Belmont offers sandwiches and baked goods that can be purchased with a meal plan.
Similar to Samford’s “Bulldog Bucks,” Belmont offers “Bruin Bucks” that roll over each semester and can be used at off-campus locations, according to Belmont’s website.
Students also are refunded for any pre-paid meals not used on their accounts.
At Union, when meal swipes go unused, they vanish. They cannot be used the following year or in any type of food court setting.
Christian Brothers University, whose dining services also are provided by ARAMARK, enrolls fewer than 1,500 students but spends about the same amount Union does.
According to its 2010-2011 990 form, Christian Brothers spent nearly $1.2 million on dining services – about $400,000 shy of what Union spent for many of its 1,081 students on campus.
CBU’s contract with ARAMARK includes a dining hall, a snack bar that serves burgers, sandwiches and salads, and a café that brews Starbucks coffee and offers sandwiches, salads, grill items, smoothies and baked goods.
Christian Brothers offers “BUC Dollars” that can be spent in several locations on campus.
“While our dining facilities at Union are somewhat dated, we do not agree other colleges the same size get ‘better food,’” Union administration officials said. “Our dining program at Union adheres to strict food quality and recipe compliance standards – the same standards as all ARAMARK locations.”
Since the beginning of the spring 2013 semester, ARAMARK has made efforts to provide Union students with more healthful options through the addition of its “healthy bar,” which offers fresh vegetables and dips.
“I really appreciate Union Dining Services’ dedication to listening to the students’ concerns and striving to provide us with a healthy and enjoyable dining experience,” said Emily Russell, sophomore psychology major.
Union’s cafeteria does strive to provide a variety of options for students.
“You may not always like the first thing you see,” said Blake Norton, junior education major. “But there’s more options, and you can be creative.”

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The Cardinal & Cream is a student publication of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Our staff ranges from freshmen to seniors and includes a variety of majors — including journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing, digital media studies, graphic design and art majors.