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In poor taste: GU dining
When current Georgetown senior Tory Pratt (SFS ‘11) arrived on campus in the fall of her freshman year, she was shocked at the quality of the food she encountered in Leo J. O’Donovan Hall, the only dining hall on campus. Having grown up in a family that emphasized healthy eating and home-cooked meals, Pratt had trouble adjusting to the dining situation on campus.
“Freshman year I came here—and I’m from a background where my mother cooked every night—and I lost 15 pounds on Leo’s,” Pratt said. “I don’t know if that was nutrition or the fact that I couldn’t eat the food because it wasn’t tasty.”
All freshmen and sophomores who live on campus are required to purchase meal plans, but Pratt says she was so dissatisfied with Leo’s that she has not eaten there since her freshman year. And it seems that she is not alone in her sentiments.
Dissatisfaction about campus dining is widespread among students, particularly among members of the Georgetown Gastronomes, a group dedicated to food appreciation and the promotion of food culture at Georgetown. A recent online survey conducted by the group, to which more than 700 students responded via Facebook and email, shows broad and deep discontent about the dining options available at Georgetown. Chief among students’ complaints are the relative lack of quality and variety of on-campus food options.
“I do not trust the quality of anything that I am served there and can’t even begin to think of the nasty things that are actually in the food that Leo’s is serving,” one respondent wrote. “If you want to eat healthy like I do, then you only have a few choices, which gets boring after a few days, let alone a few years.”
Only eight percent of respondents indicated that they were “happy with Leo’s.” When asked to rate the “variety of food at Leo’s,” only 5 students selected “great” from the list of five options, and only 25 percent of students chose the positive options of “great” or “good enough.” A majority of students chose the options “decent,” “lacking,” or “boring.”
“It gets repetitive, especially by this time in the semester,” Andrew Coflan (COL ‘11) said. “I feel like they cut corners by using the same ingredients or using lower-quality ingredients.”
Concerns about quality and variety are compounded by the high cost of a Leo’s meal plan. From the $2,234 meal plan that provides 24 meals per week to the $635 45-meal block plan, the average cost of a meal at Leo’s is $10.40.
“As a sophomore who lives in Henle, it is more economical for me to pay $8-$9 per meal at Epicurean as opposed to the $11+ breakdown of a per meal at Leo’s,” one respondent wrote. “I basically only go to Leo’s because it is required of me.”
Pratt’s disenchantment with campus dining led her to join the Gastronomes during her freshman year.
“We’re hoping that people become more aware of what they eat, and they work towards making better diets for themselves, and that there are better options on campus,” Pratt said.
The group is also active in the Georgetown Food Board, a committee that meets monthly and provides students with an oppurtunity to give feedback about the dining options available on campus. A few constructive changes have already come out of the meetings, such as a small area available for students who require a gluten-free diet, but Gastronomes members are still unsatisfied.
Austin Yoder (COL ‘11), another member of the Gastronomes, explained that Leo’s management has been receptive to constructive student feedback, but actually accomplishing meaningful change is difficult.
The blame may lie with the company behind Leo’s, a corporation that is gaining notoriety for its resistance to change—especially the kind that may eat into some of its profits—and competition. That company is the Aramark Corporation, which has provided dining services for Leo’s since 2008.
Aramark, which also supplies dining services to over 600 other colleges and employs over 250,000 people nationwide, has been beset by complaints about food quality. The company has also come under fire in the past for improper labor and business practices, although it has tried to boost its public image in recent years.
According to Leo’s Food and Production Manager Joseph Tubman, all Aramark employees, including Leo’s staffers, are explicitly forbidden to talk to the press, and all communications are routed through the company’s corporate office, making it highly difficult to discuss labor relations and treatment at Georgetown. But several employees said anonymously that they wished they could speak more openly, and that they had experienced superior work environments at other companies.
Aramark maintains that it provides competitive wages and benefits and encourages personal and professional development.
“Aramark is committed to conducting our business as a socially responsible organization,” Director of Aramark Communications Karen Cutler wrote in an email.
In the fall of 1998, Yale University contracted food services to Aramark in hopes of controlling the rising costs of food preparation and improving food quality. But according to the archives of the Yale Daily News, Aramark was found to be “dramatically lowering the amount it spends on meal production and cutting key foods from the menu—while charging Yale more for its services than it has ever paid before.”
The company also intended to cut the average cost of meal production for each student at Yale from $2.50 to $2.20. Yale’s relationship with Aramark ended in 2008, officially because Yale dining services had reached a point where they could provide food for students without a large corporate partner. But the Yale Daily News reported that the company’s management had led to a deterioration in food quality.
Current Yale freshman Somin Lee—who was on an Aramark meal plan at her high school, the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics—said she thought Yale’s new dining services were an improvement over Aramark’s.
“I was on Aramark for the past two years [in high school], and it was definitely not that great,” Lee explained. “Yale dining is a lot better.”
Yale is not the only place where relations between Aramark and a university community have soured. A series of unusual events that occured in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh suggest that the corporation is prone to anti-competitive impulses.
At Carnegie Mellon, Aramark felt threatened by the presence of food trucks next to campus, current George Mason University Professor and former Carnegie Mellon graduate student Maksim Tsvetovat said.
“At CMU and Pitt, the food truck culture flourished for years,” Tsvetovat explained. “Aramark was providing overpriced, dry burgers, fried chicken, and other typical cafeteria fare. The only people that went there were undergrads with prepaid meal plans.”
Aramark eventually sued Carnegie Mellon for violating its exclusive vending agreements, a lawsuit that was dismissed because the trucks were parked on public property.
At Pitt, the company pressured the University to buy out the block of property where the vendors were parked, although the City of Pittsburgh eventually turned it into a park where vendors were given parking access.
At Georgetown, the convenience of a Leo’s plan is enough to make many students overlook the high cost of each meal.
“It’s a pain in the ass that for as much as every meal every day costs, I could eat out,” Coflan said. “I did the calculations freshman year and realized this is a rip off. But I have a million things to do and it’s definitely a convenience thing.”
Outside of its convenience, the fact that almost all underclassmen have Leo’s plans makes the dining hall a kind of social hub. Mary Kate Robbett (COL ’11), said that she was willing to pay for a meal plan because she’s able to meet new people and keep in touch with friends by eating at Leo’s regularly.
Students with meal plans also have the option of taking prepackaged sandwiches, salads, and side items at Grab & Go, an express meal service. Although many survey respondents praised its convenience, many also complained about Grab & Go’s lack of freshness and variety.
“Grab & Go is a dying horse,” one respondent wrote. “Please give it medicine or buy a new horse and put Grab & Go out of its misery.”
Madelaine Collins (COL ‘13), said that though she has a Leo’s plan, she almost never eats in the dining hall, instead using items from Grab & Go to prepare food in her dorm room.
“I’m a big proponent of microwaving things. Even though I don’t have a kitchen, I know how to make eggs in the microwave,” Collins said.
Another area of concern for Georgetown students was Leo’s accommodation of students with alternative diets, a group that accounts for about 20 percent of the survey’s respondents. In 2007 and 2008, Georgetown was voted one of the nation’s top vegetarian-friendly campuses by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but only seven percent of the Gastronomes survey’s respondents expressed a positive view of Leo’s accommodation of students following vegetarian, vegan, kosher, and nut-free diets.
Vegetarian respondents expressed a desire for more healthy options, and complained that most Leo’s offereings are heavy on carbohydrates and salt.
The Gastronomes realize that students want to see improvements at Leo’s, but they caution that significant change is difficult to accomplish.
“We want to start with baby steps, improving the options and the quality of the food,” Ryan Bellmore (COL ‘14), a Gastronomes member said. “We need better heat lamps. I don’t like cold food!”
[Disclosure: Bellmore is a contributor to Vox Populi, the Voice’s blog.]
Another primary complaint that students raised in the Gastronomes survey is Aramark’s monopoly on campus dining. Perhaps because the few food carts in D.C. are stationed downtown and far away from Georgetown students, Aramark’s monopoly has not been challenged during its two-year tenure as the University’s food provider. But the legal battles the company fought against Pitt and Carnegie Mellon suggest that Aramark will not tolerate any attempts at dining reform that impact its bottom line.
Still, the broadly critical response to the Gastronomes survey indicates that students want the food service provided by Aramark to improve. While Georgetown’s relationship with Aramark has been free of any public problems, the company’s treatment of several other university clients is unsettling. The members of Gastronomes believe that the best way to improve students’ dining experience is by encouraging them to make the most of what Leo’s offers.
“Change at Leo’s is slow,” Pratt said. “We are about making students see how they can work with what they’ve got. And Leo’s, for most students, is what they’ve got.”