Dining Is Struggling, But Students Can Help

This semester, students have reported that fridges in DeCafé are frequently empty.

We can all tell that the dining halls are packed and the staff is overwhelmed. It is time for students to take more responsibility for supporting Campus Dining Services in the face of the administration’s shortcomings. Curious about the long lines, empty fridges, and exhausted workers, we set out to unearth the source of the difficulties faced by CDS. We realized there’s a lot that students can do with little effort.

AVI Foodsystems has consistently walked the walk of their purported values. After replacing Bon Appétit Management Company, AVI rehired 90 percent of CDS workers who chose to reapply and made a point to hire custodial staff that were let go with the switch to Scioto Services. While Scioto retained only a single employee and remains non-union, AVI unionized shortly after their appointment. 

In a Review article published April 9, Jake Reed, the union chairperson for negotiations, said that working with AVI was easier than working with the College.

“It went a lot smoother than most negotiations with the College, at least the one that I was in,” Reed said. “It was easier to compromise with them than it was with the College.”

Their dining expansion endeavors have both helped students by providing more options that accommodate dietary and cultural needs and eased the pressure on staff. According to Karena Hill, who has been working for CDS for four years, the new locations have worked well to reduce the number of students coming through Stevenson Dining Hall.

“Now we’re at about 1,500 or 1,600 [students] a day,” Hill said. “When I was here before it was 1,000 students per meal, so that was 3,000 a day instead of just 1,500 a day.”

While new dining locations have eased some of the burden, supply chain and staffing shortages are still a problem. 

“We have been combating supply chain shortages and inflated food costs from our vendors due to the economic aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Sarirose Hyldahl, director of retail for AVI, in an email to the Review. “The issues with supply chain shortages are largely attributed to staffing shortages across all landscapes, something that we are also experiencing within CDS.” 

The staffing shortage has resulted in extra work days for current staffers.

“We have definitely been short-staffed,” said Head Cook Geoff Zimmer. “There is a clause in our contract that says if management has asked everyone to cover an open shift and no one takes it, they can force people in on their days off.” 

However, there seems to be recognition among staff that everyone, staff and AVI administrators alike, are not only in the same boat but also working together on it. 

“It’s really not fair to judge them over another company when [Bon Appétit] didn’t experience what we’ve had to go through,” said Kimberley Casada, who has worked with CDS for 23 years. “We went through a lot of changes when AVI stepped up, and while they may not be used to handling such a large account, they do very well — they’re nice, and they care.” 

It is clear that AVI is working hard in the face of exigent circumstances, and students can help mitigate the challenges facing CDS staff through small, daily practices.

First, students should return the green eco boxes to the correct bins. In the transition to take-out-only dining, AVI purchased 22,000 green takeout containers, and they estimate only 2,500 of those are still in circulation.

“We have tried moving return bins to high traffic locations, outside of dorms, classroom buildings, student buildings, etc. … with no real improvement in return rates,” wrote Hyldahl. 

Zimmer has seen boxes thrown out on campus and in the town, and he has taken it upon himself to retrieve and return them while not on the clock — something we, as students, can also do. If you see green boxes in trash cans and are comfortable doing so, please retrieve them. We need to be conscious of ensuring the responsibility of eco box return does not fall onto already overwhelmed workers. We also need to ensure that we empty the boxes of food before we return them, and before they mold.

Second, please stop shoplifting. It contributes to higher “Xchange” prices, according to Hyldahl. 

“In an average week, we see in the ballpark of thousand[s] of dollars in product being taken from our locations with no monetary exchange,” Hyldahl said.

This is an unacceptable deficit, especially with 60 percent of the student body’s average household income sitting at upwards of $110,000 and 28 percent sitting between $48,000 and $110,000. 

When students with the means to pay shoplift anyway, food becomes more financially inaccessible for others. Hyldahl recognizes that there are sometimes extenuating circumstances. 

“I understand food insecurity well from a very personal standpoint, and I never want to see students go hungry,” she wrote. “I want to see a better solution to food insecurity on campus.”

As for lines, we recommend that students explore the expanded dining options and try non-peak times, schedules permitting. 

In addition to student actions, we investigated possible budgetary and administrative factors. Unsurprisingly, we hit a dead end. This is not uncommon at Oberlin, as the administration tends to be transparent only about their unwillingness to promote transparency. However, it is no secret that Oberlin has been implementing budget cuts in almost every area, setting intentions to reduce staff and faculty numbers as well as salaries and benefits. 

The cuts were part of the College’s promise to reduce “professional staff” by 50 positions, in line with other concerning choices made by the College in regard to staff and unionization. One might wonder why redoing the Robert Carr Pool — which was closed for construction most of the summer despite having been radically renovated in 2018 — was a priority for the College when retaining and fairly paying staff seems to be outside of budget. What does it say about our values when we are able to secure $80 million in funding for our carbon-neutral endeavors, making Oberlin the third recipient in the world of a Certified Climate Bond, but we cannot afford good working conditions for employees?

Regardless of the cause, the administration will not bear the brunt of CDS’s problems. Time and time again the College has demonstrated its willingness to place the desires of their primary source of income — students — over the needs, rights, and wellbeing of its staff. The challenges brought on by a newly full campus and an underprepared dining system has led to the brunt of the burden being carried by the workers. While it remains difficult to hold the College accountable, as students we can at least take responsibility and try to help out.