After semester of adjustment, dining reviews remain mixed

Now that dining services has had a semester to react to and revise the kinks in the College’s new dining system, it seems that students have mostly settled into the rhythm of their eating options. However, questions about the successes, failures and future improvements to the system are still being discussed, even while a new group of students is experiencing the changes for the first time.

Student opinions

The return of students who studied abroad during the fall semester, most of whom missed the restructured dining system’s first growing pains, has brought a whole new wave of first-time experiences. These students expressed varied points of view on how the new system compares to the dining structure of past years.

“There are things that I like about the changes and things that really disappoint me,” Jenny Morrison ’12 said, joining the voices of many mixed reviews of the new dining changes. “I love the food in Mission; I think that the quality there has improved. The Marche stations are always really good and there seem to be more options, which is always a good thing.”

Morrison’s main criticism of the new dining system stems from her frustrations about the situation in Whitmans’. “The food there is lacking in variety, and the lines are ridiculously long,” she said. “I’m on the dining committee, and we warned them about long lines, but they assured us that closing Greylock wouldn’t make a difference. I think they were wrong, and after all the stories I’ve heard, I’m terrified of spring semester when there is an even greater lunch rush.”

Emily Schwab ’12, a fall semester study abroad student who is currently on the 10-meal plan, said that the adjustments to the new dining system have not been difficult for her. “I did the 14-meal plan last year, but with the changes in the dining halls, I figured I should switch to 10,” Schwab said. “I’ve eaten most at Whitmans’, which is fine. So far the food is good, and I’m happy to see the same people from Dodd and Greylock working in Whitmans’, Mission and Greylock.”

However, Schwab was saddened by the closing of Dodd, her favorite dining spot. She also said she feels a difference in the atmosphere at Whitmans’ Late Night in contrast to the atmosphere at Lee Snack Bar. “Late Night is good – I love the falafel and the free cereal setup, but I miss the vibe at snack bar,” she said. “It feels a little deader now with everyone kind of dispersed around Paresky.”

Hannah Mangham ’12 sees a mix of the old and the new in the recent dining changes. “A lot of things seem the same, such as Whitmans’ at lunchtime [being] really crowded,” she said. “I’m still on the 21-meal plan, and I really like that the ’82 Grill is now open more and has subs.”

Many of the students that have been on campus since the fall also have mixed sentiments on dining changes. “Figuring out when optimal times are at which dining halls was annoying, but it has made me look at menus more … When dining halls go off menus, it’s very frustrating,” said Xio Pinto ’12, who was on campus for the fall semester. “I often miss Dodd, it was always my favorite, but since Dodd neighborhood has been opening it on occasion, it’s not so bad.”

Newcomer Cooper Nassery ’14 prefers Whitmans’ or Grab ’n Go to the dining halls on most occasions. “I am a picky eater, so I look for consistency in meals,” he said. “Unfortunately, choosing to eat at Mission is like gambling – you hope for a winning meal, but the food usually ends up falling short of expectations.”

Dining Services’ reaction

Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services, and Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of student dining, are satisfied with the first semester of the new dining system after the initial adjustment period. They said long lines made the first few weeks of the semester especially frustrating for students and dining staff. “It certainly got much easier for us,” Volpi said. “Within six to eight weeks, we started to understand traffic.”

The dining renovations have been, according to Abaysinghe, “a learning curve for not only the staff but also for the students.”

Through the suggestion cards placed in each dining area, meetings with the Food Committee once a month and frequent visits to College Council (CC), Dining Services has tried to monitor student opinions and reactions to the renovations. Both Volpi and Abayasinghe credit CC with helping keep the communication between the students and Dining active and responsive. “The direction and guidance they [CC] were giving us was really key,” Volpi said.

“We felt like we were in a very close partnership,” Abayasinghe added.

According to Volpi and Abayasinghe, Dining Services receives five to six e-mails each day to which they respond individually. Some of the most frequent student dining suggestions are calls for more fresh vegetables, as well as locally grown and gluten-free foods and eggs.

Additionally, Dining Services has incorporated new ideas from across campus into the dining halls; the use of reusable containers, which Thursday Night Grassroots and the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives advocated for, is an important example. The replacement of disposable to-go boxes with reusable ones has saved the College from throwing out 2500 containers weekly.

Impact on staffing

The changes in staffing as a consequence of the new dining renovations have proved a positive experience for Dining Services and staff members, according to Volpi and Abayasinghe. At the beginning of the year, Dining Services sent out a letter to each staff member asking for work location preferences. Senior members of Dining Services then met as a committee to review these preference letters and other factors in order to place staff members accordingly. This lengthy process continued up until December, and has allowed three promotions within the department. Many staff members are now also eligible for added benefits.

“We have really asked so much of our staff [this semester] and they have responded so well – just look at what happened this past week after the snowstorm,” Abayasinghe said. According to Abayasinghe, several staff members drove lengthy distances amidst the snow and ice to arrive at the College to start regular dining hours after the snowstorm last Tuesday. “They are the best,” Volpi added.

The student work-study program through Dining Services has grown 30 percent with the new dining system as well, according to Volpi and Abayasinghe.

Looking ahead

No further renovation plans or restructuring of the dining system are currently planned for this year. “We are at the place where we are absorbing all of these changes,” Abayasinghe said. “We were able to take all of those [suggestions by the Dining Services Implementation Committee] and bring them into fruition this year.” While Volpi said that many of the renovations to both Mission and Driscoll this past year are working, he added, “Driscoll is ready” for further renovations in the near future. “We need to do something [more] there,” he said.