Rising food prices hit Dining Services

It’s definitely not peanuts – with a total expenditure of $9.49 million for the current fiscal year, Dining Services is a massive, yet delicate, operation. To address escalating food and fuel costs, the College has been monitoring its purchases and waste factors to balance both budgets and diets.

“There’s been substantial increase in the cost of food, especially dairy products,” said Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services. “But we knew well in advance that there was going to be an increase and made a commitment to remaining hormone-free and local.”

While prioritizing local vendors over competitive purchasing, Dining Services has found ways to cut costs. For example, while the College continues to obtain fresh dairy products from a local supplier, it now purchases trade name goods such as Stonyfield Yogurt and Cabot Cheese through open bidding, rather than paying a premium at the dairy.

Each week, Volpi and his staff scrutinize items that chalk up more than 5 percent price increments, and compare them to the most recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, to ensure competitive rates. “We’ll let our vendor know that we’re looking at it and are aware of market-driven issues,” Volpi said, noting that markets for cheese, produce and flour have been especially volatile.

However, the College has yet to resort to changing its food offerings – unlike institutions like Harvard University, where menu substitutions sparked student outcry in opinions columns and on listservers. “We haven’t changed our menus,” Volpi said, apart from discontinuing statler chicken, a “very high end” cut and the presentation of chicken breast “found in very fine hotels,” in College dining halls.

Prices at Snack Bar may change when menus are set for the coming academic year. “We might see definitely a 4 or 5 percent increase in price, because of things like rising food costs and salaries increasing,” Volpi said.

Other cost-saving measures include an upcoming collection drive to recover serviceware that students have taken over the year. According to Volpi, roughly $6000 of serviceware, including buzzers, has been removed from Paresky.

Such approaches are crucial to meet the budget. “We’re not managing in terms of profit or loss – we’re managing towards the expenditures we’re given per year,” Volpi said.

Next year’s projected expenditure is $9.76 million, up 2.8 percent from this year in tandem with the USDA’s forecasted 3.0 to 4.0 percent increase in food prices.

Changes across the board

Peer institutions echo such concerns about negotiating set budgets, community values and rising costs. “Local, sustainable, fresh, high quality – many of our ideals may need to be tweaked to the point where reality meets budget,” said Matthew Biette, director of Dining Services at Middlebury College. “We have a limited amount of money to spend. Period.”

To keep expenditures within this amount, Middlebury has trimmed certain offerings: replacing white meat with chicken thighs in recipes such as masala and stir fry, as well as discontinuing juice at dinner, except for local cider in season.

The impact of these changes has been minor. “For the most part, we have been able to cover many of the increases by the decrease in wasted foods due to our eliminating the use of trays this year,” Biette said, a move which the College also completed last month in Driscoll Dining Hall.

Like Williams, Middlebury anticipates revising prices at its retail operations. “This area is the easiest to handle due to the direct pricing as a reflection of cost,” Biette said.

At Dartmouth College, prices for meat entrees, such as salmon, change day-to-day if market prices fluctuate dramatically. As with the College and Middlebury, however, all other prices are only raised once a year, according to Beth DiFrancesco, purchasing manager for Dartmouth’s Dining Services.

DiFrancesco says that rising food prices have yet to impact Dartmouth significantly. “We’re really just watching our costs and invoices and that’s all you can do,” she said. “We’re keeping watch on our portion sizes, but haven’t changed the quality or variety of menu offerings.”

Some of the inflation has been buffered by advance purchases. “We bought a term’s worth of frying oil before the big price increase,” DiFrancesco said.

While Dining Services at Dartmouth also watches USDA projections and their own vendors’ predictions, DiFrancesco said, “Last year’s price increases were far greater than anyone anticipated, presumably because of the worldwide food shortage.”

The shortage has also affected Columbia University. “Rising prices have forced us to look at our menus and modify our offerings where possible and where we feel they will have the smallest impact on our students,” said Joseph Heavey, executive director of dining services, citing the substitution of tilapia for shrimp on a seafood dish as a typical “non-necessity” expense reduction.

Measuring satisfaction

“Our philosophy is to be the best in the country, and we can say that we are the best by looking at our student satisfaction results,” Volpi said, referring to the comprehensive survey of Dining Services posed to 40 percent of the student body annually. “If the best students in the country say we are the best, then we are.”

Developed by Ching Ho ’03, the review applies a five-point satisfaction scale across numerous attributes at each dining hall, running the gamut from freshness to refilling of beverage machines. Anything that receives a rating below 3.5 is earmarked for improvement. Dining Services introduced a hot sandwich bar at Mission Park Dining Hall this year in an effort to pull its lunch ratings up to the 4.0 lunch average.

According to Volpi, the breadth and detail of both this survey and the market basket analysis are unique to the College. “This is a Williams thing, not something you’d see at Amherst or Middlebury. Williams utilizes the talents of students from all over the world,” he said, adding that Center for Developmental Economics student Orzimurad Gaybullaev of Uzbekistan was instrumental in creating the electronic inventory management system.

The College performs less favorably in mainstream measures of dining quality: it does not make the top 20 on the Princeton Review’s Best Campus Food list, which consistently awards first and second place to the highly publicized dining programs at Virginia Tech and Bowdoin College. “There’s something about the Princeton Review that I’ve never quite figured out,” Volpi said. “I really think that our program is different because Bowdoin only has two dining halls. I’d say we’re definitely at the top.”

Middlebury has implemented a feedback system allowing students to rate individual menu items on its Dining Services’ Web site. The day’s tallies are posted on a blog called Middelicious.

At Columbia, slightly over half of its undergraduate residents are on dining plans, amidst an “overwhelming variety of stores and restaurants right in the neighborhood.” As such, Dining Services emphasizes take-out options. “Dining in general is trending towards more customized and individual service,” Heavey said.