College students are often stereotyped as “starving.” Even vending machines on East Tennessee State University sell the college staple, Maruchan Ramen, so it should come as no surprise that college students are serious about their food selections.
After Sodexo replaced Aramark as the ETSU food provider on July 1, 2016, campus dining experienced many changes. Some have been embraced by students, but others have left them asking for more alterations to be made.
“Sodexo does a wonderful job, but there are a few things I think could use improvement,” said Lani
Rogers, freshman at ETSU.
The campus cafeteria, the Marketplace Dining Commons, is open from 7 a.m. to midnight everyday during the academic year “with some restrictions at selected holidays and breaks,” according to the latest Sodexo meal plan flyer.
ETSU offers seven meal plan options for its students, each with different amounts of Marketplace access, guest passes and dining dollars.
Guest passes allow students to pay for meals of friends and family without meal plans. Dining dollars are used to purchase food from all dining locations on ETSU’s campus and certain locations off campus that have contracts with the university, according to the ETSU Dining Services website.
There are Platinum, Gold and Silver Anytime 7 Day plans, and each allows unlimited access to the Marketplace and limited access to the Treehouse Take Out, seven days a week, according to the ETSU Housing and Residence Life website.
The Platinum plan is $1,975 each semester and allows 10 guest passes and 400 dining dollars. The Gold plan provides eight guest passes and 200 dining dollars at $1,775 a semester. The Silver plan is $1,675 each semester and allows four guest passes and 100 dining dollars.
“I did have to get [a meal plan,] but I feel like I would have gotten one no matter what,” Rogers said. “I didn’t want to have to spend all of my money on groceries and then have to prepare my meal as well.”
Roger lives on campus, and she has the Gold meal plan. She said the 200 dining dollars have been useful to her when eating at retail locations.
ETSU also offers an Anytime 5 Day plan. Students with this plan have 5 days of access to the Marketplace a week. Four guest passes and 100 dining dollars are also available through the plan.
Beginning in the fall 2016 semester, first-year students with 60 or fewer credit hours who live on campus were automatically registered for the Anytime 7 Day Silver meal plan. If they wish, students could upgrade to the Anytime 7 Day Gold or Platinum meal plans.
Students who fall into this category may be exempt from purchasing a meal plan if they live in Buccaneer Ridge Apartments.
Heidi Bean, a freshman campus resident at ETSU, had to purchase a meal plan according to the new regulations.
“I would have liked the choice to choose a cheaper meal plan,” she said.
Some students like Bean would prefer a smaller meal plan like the Anytime 5 Day plan. Whether they eat fewer meals on campus a week, leave campus on the weekends or choose to make their own meals during the week, students would waste less money if they could choose smaller plans, according to Bean.
First and second-year students with 60 or fewer credit hours will follow these rules for the 2017-2018 school year.
“I would have liked the choice to choose a cheaper meal plan." -Heidi Bean
There are also Block Plans for students looking for smaller, less expensive meal plans. Block Plans allow students to purchase a certain number of meals for the semester. These plans can be purchased for $800, $600 and $400 for 80, 50 and 25 meals, respectively. However, they are only available to students who are not required to get a meal plan.
Kelvin Tarukwasha, Sodexo General Manager at ETSU, explained that the meal plan requirement for students with 60 hours or fewer did not happen because Sodexo replaced Aramark.
“It’s a university process and decision ... that we carry through,” Tarukwasha said.
Another issue students have with Sodexo’s new meal plans is meal swipes can only be used at the Marketplace or Treehouse Take Out. Under Aramark, students could use meal swipes to pay for part of their meals at campus retail locations like Quiznos, Chick-fil-A, and Einstein Bros. Bagels. What cost was not covered by the meal swipe could be paid by dining dollars or cash.
The Sodexo meal plans only allow students to pay for meals at these locations with dining dollars. Meal swipes cannot be used.
Some students are also upset about not being able to use gift cards at on campus locations, according to Greyson Coldwell. Currently, gift cards may be used at Starbucks and Taco Bell only, according to Amber Zamora, Sodexo Retail Manager. All other campus retail dining locations cannot accept them.
“The only reason Taco Bell does is because their gift cards are Visa-based,” Zamora said.
College students may receive gift cards from friends and family to use on campus, only to find out they are not accepted at the campus location.
Coldwell, a freshman at ETSU, says he uses gift cards at the campus Starbucks, but he cannot use the Chick-fil-A cards he has received.
“Before I left for college, I was gifted a lot of cards from friends and family,” he said. “It would be great if they accepted gift cards there, especially since Chick-fil-A is such a big deal [on campus.]”
According to Tarukwasha, gift cards are only redeemable if the food retailer allows ETSU to accept them.
“Most of that is really driven by the brand itself,” he said. “We franchise, so we run Chick-fil-A for Chick-fil-A, so to speak. A lot of it depends on whether the … organization allows us, in the university segment, to accept gift cards.”
He said the university paid a large fee to install gift card reader equipment at Starbucks, but it seemed reasonable to pay the installation fee to allow students to redeem cards.
Starbucks allows the campus location to accept gift cards. However, for other campus retailers, he says ability is the issue, not cost. The businesses prevent the university from accepting gift cards.
“We wouldn’t just say we’re not going to accept gift cards if it wasn’t something that was beyond our ability to do.” -Kelvin Tarukwasha
“For us, any way that will bring in customers, revenue or make it easy for customers to purchase, we really want that,” Tarukwasha said. “We wouldn’t just say we’re not going to accept gift cards if it wasn’t something that was beyond our ability to do.”
Tarukwasha said Dining Services and Sodexo have less control than students think.
“Chick-fil-A, for example, can literally tell you … ‘we’re increasing the cost of a chicken sandwich by 10 cents,’” he said. “On our end, we may say ‘whoa, we don’t want to do that in the middle of a semester. It’s going to upset students,’ but they’ll say ‘you’re doing it.’”
However, ETSU Dining Services is aware that campus dining is not perfect for students, and it seeks feedback to become better.
“That’s certainly our goal, to provide the service [students] deserve,” Tarukwasha said.
The department emailed a survey to students this semester asking for dining feedback. According to the email, it was intended to “improve…customer satisfaction.”
Sodexo also held a series of focus groups in February to understand what students liked about the Marketplace changes and what they would like to see added with the upcoming D.P. Culp University Center renovations.
Another effort to ensure dining satisfaction is the implementation of a culinary council that visits all campus locations as mystery shoppers and report back to Sodexo about their experience.
The culinary council is made up of 23 students from campus groups like the Student Government Association or the Residence Hall Association, as well as five or six faculty members, according to Tarukwasha.
Council members are given a schedule at the beginning of each semester that details one location they must visit at some point each week. They are given several questions to answer about their experience.
“They’ll answer … ‘Did people greet [me] with a smile?’” Tarukwasha said. “’Was the food fresh or appealing? Is it what I expected? Was I happy with the experience?’ We use that to make corrections. And then, in the following week, we normally [meet with staff] to say … the one issue that kept coming up is cleanliness, for example.”
Tarukwasha said some locations may have two or three mystery shoppers in a single week, but employees at the dining locations do not know the students and staff on the culinary council. This allows the experience to be accurate because the mystery shoppers do not receive special attention from employees at the locations.
Students and staff are given money by Dining Services on their ETSU accounts for meals and are required to purchase food of that amount during their scheduled visit to each location.
“We make you go, but at the same time, you’re getting a free meal,” said Tarukwasha. “I think it’s a fair deal.”
Besides mystery shopping, the culinary council meets every two to three weeks during the semester to discuss any issues with campus dining.
Even though ETSU has opportunities like these for students to voice their concerns, some students are unsure that the feedback is seriously considered.
“They say that they take into consideration everything students submit to them, but I don’t see results from that,” said Coldwell.
Rogers said she has experienced a few problems with food in the Marketplace, but has not expressed them to Dining Services.
“Mainly what could improve is the variety of food choices served … and possibly making sure food is still hot when they’re serving it,” she said. “I’ve gotten a cold hamburger before, and it was gross.”
Assistant Vice President for Student Services, Sam Mayhew, said any student complaints or concerns should be reported to Dining Services or Student Affairs as soon as possible to be resolved.
“If they’re not resolved, I’m certainly available to meet with students,” Mayhew said.
In response to current issues and complaints students have, Tarukwasha said Dining Services’ goal is to make campus dining the best it can be.
“It’s an ongoing process where we never assume that we are doing is OK because sometimes you think you’re doing good, but the person you’re doing it for is thinking otherwise,” he said.
Mayhew also said part of making that experience better is being consistent with food options, which he believes Sodexo has strived to do since becoming ETSU’s food provider.
“[It’s] very important because we want a student that comes in September to get the same consistency in April,” he said.