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Caf complaints, and the reasons why they exist

Staff Writer


Published: Thursday, April 15, 2010

Updated: Thursday, April 15, 2010

It isn’t hard to find criticisms of UNCG’s Dining Services. In fact, if one simply thinks for a moment, one can easily think of a time they were dissatisfied. The food at the cafeteria was cold, cold, made poorly and with little variety, or the store hadn’t been restocked in ages despite being empty for days, or employees were standing around behind the counter while only one register served the rapidly growing line. It is unusual, however, to hear anyone talk about why these problems are.

The reason isn’t that the managers of Dining Services are incompetent or malicious, or that the company that provides us, Chartwells, a section of the UK based Compass Group, is out to make our lives miserable, or that it is just something that every college has to put up with. The management has made several recent efforts to address the student body’s concerns. The recent change over in Dining Services management has brought very little noticeable change to our experience, and an hour down the road, NC State has vastly better dining service. Rather, it is that little piece of plastic that every one of us carries around: the SpartanCard.

As we all know, every semester we must guess how hungry we are going to be, and then select  from three plans that don’t really resemble that guess. Invariably we pick a plan that gives us more food than we will use, and we are locked into paying that lump sum at the beginning of the year. For the freshmen among us, one is required to pick a plan that allows one to enter the cafeteria and eat whatever whenever. So, imagine you managed a cafeteria that had all of its revenue paid to it at the beginning of 4 months, then had to feed people from that lump sum for 4 months. The only way to make profit, obviously, is to lower costs. One could pay for high quality ingredients, but why would you? One could hire and fire at a high wage to obtain the best workers, those that could serve the food quickly, but why would you? You could keep track of the things that people eat most, and focus on serving that, but why would you? You could repair the machines that break down from use due to their popularity, but why would you? You could keep your doors open for longer hours and hire another shift to man it, but why would you? You could keep track of when people arrive and open and close sections as needed to keep from overcrowding at peak hours, but why would you?

If you, as a manager, did any of these things, all it would do is bring in more students to eat, driving up the costs of your cafeteria, without bringing in any more revenue to offset it. In fact, you are being encouraged by the price system to make your food and service as terrible as possible, to keep your variable costs down and your profits up.

Students could choose to not eat within the Dining Services system, but they have already paid for those meals. After that transaction is made at the beginning of the semester paying for food, a meal from Dining Services is essentially free. You could walk to someplace else off of campus and pay for food, but free beats better quality most of the time.  To be sure, students tend to opt out of the Dining Services system altogether as they progress through their academic careers, having learned from previous experience; food can be covered under financial aid just like any other living expense. However, that money arrives in a lump sum as well, and few students have the financial discipline to keep track of their food expenses from that lump sum over time. A large sum paid through a loan feels a lot less expensive than having to hand over money every time one wants to eat. 


Moreover, most students are assisted in paying for and managing their finances by their parents, parents who want to be assured that their children are well fed but never have to experience the constant small irritations of the lack of quality and care in Dining Services.  Lastly, students have very little individual incentive to do anything about the problems. Large numbers of well organized people are required to exert blunt pressure on the Dining Services system, and any one individual is benefited whether they contributed to that effort or not.

A far, far better system could be realized if all dining on campus was not controlled by one entity. If students could choose from a number of different food providers on a meal-to-meal basis that generate revenue on a meal to meal basis, as anyone in the real world can do, those providers would be forced to improve service and quality to support profit, not cut it. If any one provider gained an advantage, that advantage would rapidly be countered by all the other competitors. If one provider completely failed to provide, it would be forced to pull out and be replaced with another, without any need to wait for a long contract to expire.  As long as the current payment system is a common feature in every exclusive food service contract the school signs, students are forced to bear bad  food served poorly.

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