Investigative News: University Dining Services underfeeds, underpays

Spandan Marasini, Contributing Writer

In 2005, former University President Brian C. Mitchell made a decision to completely revamp dining, passing the University’s dining program from Sodexo to Parkhurst Dining. This decision was met by student, faculty and staff opposition. Students amassed 1,777 signatures for a petition, faculty members engaged in constant dialogue with Administration and a Dining Services committee of staff met with Mitchell and Vice President of Finance Dave Surgala. Soon after, the University decided to outsource with a 10-year contract with Parkhurst and doubled down in 2015, signing another long-term deal. 

Issues with Dining Services have recently begun gaining traction. The Bucknell Alternative Delegation (BAD) had a week-of-action around food insecurity in 2018, and during Admitted Students Day last spring, students raised a banner reading, “Why does BU force students to purchase meal plans? Pasta at BU: $8. Pasta at Walmart: 89¢.” Another group spread information on the issue while distributing free macaroni and cheese in Bertrand Library last semester. According to these students, dining at the University is overpriced, and those making our food aren’t reaping the benefits in the form of improved wages.

All students living on-campus are required to be on a meal plan. However, as Surgala acknowledged in an interview, some of the meal plans are not enough to feed a student for an entire semester. The numbers bear out this admission; the highest possible dining-dollars-based meal plan ($1300 + bonus $65) yields a daily average budget of $12.50. Meanwhile, the $1,000 meal plan corresponds to an average of $9.60 per day and the $700 plan offers approximately $6.70 a day. With meals costing around $8 each, the budget provided by the $1,300 plan only covers around one and a half meals per day – roughly half the amount which the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends as a healthy consumption level for an American adult.

For those students who receive a great deal of financial aid, purchasing a meal plan can be especially burdensome. For example, for a student who pays $2,000 to the University, dining expenses form a substantial part of their fees – even the cheapest dining plan, at $700 per semester, would multiply their total cost by nearly 1.5.

Some students feel as though $700 could be better used elsewhere. “The minimum $700 meal plan, paired with $7 and $4 cups of strawberries means that you can’t live off of $700 through Bucknell. If students had the opportunity to opt-out of the meal plan, they would at least be able to put their money into cheaper grocery options,” said Maya McKeever ’21.

“If you’re putting $700 toward a meal plan, that means you have $700 less to put toward getting groceries and cooking your own food. In some cases, people who would be able to eat well without a plan aren’t getting enough food because of the $700,” Molly O’Halloran ’22 said.

To combat Parkhurst’s influence on students’ dining experience, the University started the B-Eats food pantry in 2018. Located right next to the Dean of Students’ office on the second floor of the Elaine Langone Center, B-Eats offers students free access to various dry goods, vegetables, fruits, refrigerated items and frozen meals. According to Dean of Students Amy Badal, the secluded location of B-Eats was chosen to give students a level of anonymity.

Despite its popularity, B-Eats is not viewed as a permanent solution. “The food pantry is a band-aid option that [the University] is going to ride until national news hears that the school doesn’t [care] about poor students, but keeps bringing them here and not supporting them,” McKeever said.

One facet of campus dining that students feel is not addressed by B-Eats is the social aspect. Many acknowledge the ways in which eating with one’s peers is also not an option for those with limited funds who may rely on the food pantry. “Eating is an extremely social act, so it can really strain a student’s relationships when everyone around them has more money to spend on food,” said O’Halloran.

Additionally, B-Eats is only open during office hours (M–F, 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM). As this is when most students are busy, making a trip to the pantry can be difficult – especially if a student is picking out something that needs to be stored in a fridge. With the pantry closed during the weekends as well, B-Eats is closed for more hours every week than it is open.

Parkhurst Dining at the University hires full-time staff at $8.50 an hour, with the requirement that any staff member’s wage, within four years of working at Bucknell, must rise to $12.50. Working in dining is a full-time job; however, since dining operations close down during the summer, employees find work only during the semester. In any calendar year, if a staff member works 40 hours each week for the school year (37 weeks), they will make only $11,200 – less than half the poverty rate for a family of four, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Bison workers have claimed to be on welfare or to also have a separate part-time job – alongside working full-time in Dining – to supplement their income. Vice President Surgala said that Bucknell benchmarks its wages according to competitive workplaces, despite the University’s status as a not-for-profit institution.

When asked during “A Night With the Presidents” how the University can justify these staff wages, President Bravman said, “If we bump those wages up significantly, you’re gonna be paying significantly more for food. It’s a balance.” His answer highlights the focus on the difficulties between paying University staff more versus raising food prices; although, this response did not directly address the relationship between Parkhurst and the University.

When Bucknellian writer Helen Lauterbach ’21 reached out for comment, Badal responded that, “Bucknell acknowledges that there is a growing problem of food insecurity among college students nationwide. The Food Pantry opened at Bucknell in fall 2018 as a result of student feedback and requests. We initially consulted with the University nutritionist in selecting food that offers high protein content. Since then we have added a variety of items based on student requests including almond milk, tofu, eggs, pears, spinach, avocado and bread. The Bucknell Farm has also provided us with food including potatoes, peppers, garlic and butternut squash. We have at times included recipes for students as well.”

Students like McKeever have proposed solutions, such as allowing seniors with extra dining dollars at graduation to share their funds with those who may need them. “And, if it’s really mandatory, then the school needs to start paying for those who can’t [afford] it,” she said.

The University administration has acknowledged that further steps need to be taken. “The University continues to assess the needs of our students and is working to develop systemic changes including closely looking at meal plan options,” said Dean Badal.

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