CDS Implements Minor Changes after Media Frenzy

Harrison Wollman, Staff Writer

Little has changed for Campus Dining Services in the three months since representatives met with students from the South Asian, Vietnamese and Chinese student associations — except for the media attention, of course.

Despite the national spotlight placed on Oberlin College, CDS and the student associations, Director of Business Operations and Dining Services Michele Gross seemed unfazed that her branch of Oberlin’s administration — which contracts the food service management company Bon Appétit — had found its way into the limelight. When asked to comment on the media coverage, Gross gave a tempered response.

“My focus is on making sure we meet the varied needs of the community, and that we actively listen to students’ input to improve their dining experience,” she said.

On Nov. 6, 2015, The Oberlin Review published the article, “CDS Appropriates Asian Dishes, Students Say,” which would eventually become a national controversy. Citing banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches with improper ingredients, a heavily altered General Tso’s chicken recipe and Dascomb’s sushi bar, the article expressed the frustrations of several Oberlin College students who felt that CDS had been disrespectful by poorly adapting traditional dishes.

The November article led to a sit-down between CDS and students, and CDS agreed to improve the cultural accuracy and the naming process of meals by not associating excessively modified dishes with specific cultures. At the time, the issue appeared to have been put to rest.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the topic began to gain traction in local and national news outlets toward the end of Oberlin’s designated finals period. On Dec. 21, The New York Times published an article titled, “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to The Dining Hall.” As other national news outlets, such as The Atlantic, ABC News, NBC, Buzzfeed, Fox News and The Washington Post also chimed in, the issue went viral.

Diep Nguyen, a College first-year from Vietnam who was quoted in the November article, said that she received a flow of hate messages. Still, Nguyen felt that the attention had a positive side.

“Overall, I think the article and petition have made a good impact on students’ awareness, not only within Oberlin College, but also in the U.S. However, that kind of attention is a double-edged knife, because people can easily assume that we, college students, are spoiled and complain about trivial things,” Nguyen said.

As more and more pundits jumped on the issue, the original message from the Nov. 6 article seemed to slip farther away.

The author of the Nov. 6 article and the co-chair of the Vietnamese Student Association, Clover Linh Tran, mentioned that she hadn’t observed many changes.

“I just noticed that the sushi bar at Dascomb has been replaced by a deli bar,” Tran said. “Besides that, I’ve also noticed that CDS is now labeling food in more sensible ways, like saying this dish is Chinese-style, instead of claiming it as Chinese.”

Moving forward, Nguyen said that while it may be tough for CDS to cater to the numerous ethnicities here at Oberlin College, the service should not label foods as traditional after such severe modifications to dishes.

“CDS has to work hard to cater for many students coming from different backgrounds, so it is impossible to provide the authentic taste of foreign food,” Nguyen said. “However, if CDS cannot ensure that the food is authentic, then they should find another way to name it. I don’t know if this is possible, but it would be nice to have more Asian food served in dining halls because, for me, food is somehow a sense of home.”

Gross said that CDS will continue to be cognizant of student input when creating future menus for the student body.

“Student input has always been important and will continue to be actively sought, including the use of electronic comment cards, written comment cards, comment tables and Dining Committee and other student groups in order to better serve the community,” Gross said.

While the student associations and CDS could have hardly anticipated the coverage the issue received, it appears that the groups have made some headway toward reaching a compromise. Several students may have an opportunity to discuss further changes on March 1 when a Bon Appétit representative is set to come to Oberlin.