Butler students report issues with dining services amid COVID-19 changes, Bon Appétit addresses student feedback

Students have reported a number of problems with Butler Dining this year. Photo by Evalyn Peacey.

MEGHAN STRATTON | EDITOR-IN-CHIEF | mrstratt@butler.edu

ANNIE FAULKNER | ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR | aefaulkn@butler.edu

When Madelin Snider entered Atherton Marketplace earlier this fall, she was looking for something that she, a vegetarian, could eat. She saw a sweet potato dish, and the sign on the screen above it labeled the dish with a small green “V” icon for vegetarian. Upon closer inspection, however, Snider realized the dish was not vegetarian at all.

The tray contained marshmallows, which are made of gelatin, a substance made from boiled bones, skin, ligaments and tendons, usually from cows and pigs. Confused, Snider did a double-take.

This was not the only time Snider, a sophomore art and design major, said she has encountered food that Bon Appétit has falsely labeled as vegetarian. Sometimes, they serve “vegetarian” dishes that contain parmesan cheese, which is not vegetarian because it contains rennet, an enzyme found in calf and goat stomachs.

Sometimes the dining staff tells her they don’t have the vegetarian option she’s looking for. Sometimes they don’t understand what she’s asking for. Snider has left Atherton empty-handed many times; more often than not, there are simply no options she can eat.

It’s just really disrespectful and frustrating,” Snider said. “I feel like we’re almost being robbed because we can’t get actual food, and we’re paying thousands of dollars for these meal plans.”

Every aspect of life at Butler has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — dining is no exception. In order to keep students safe, Butler dining has made changes to its normal procedures. These changes include fewer options, reduced capacity and delivering meals to quarantined students. While these changes were made to protect the Butler community from COVID-19, some have had adverse effects on Butler students.

Bon Appétit began a student feedback campaign last week to gauge student concerns. Joe Graves, the general manager of Bon Appétit, said the majority of the 260 responses they have received so far were positive. However, numerous student interviews tell a different story.

Snider is not the only student who has experienced issues with Butler dining this year; other students have reported problems including both the caliber and variety of food served at campus dining halls.=

Madeline Freeman, a sophomore strategic communication and Spanish double major, spoke of issues with the quality of the food served at Atherton so far this year.

“I had half a scoop of this pot pie thing and like three or four green beans,” Freeman said describing one such incident. “Like, I don’t know how I can eat this.”

Photo courtesy of Madeline Freeman.

Freeman said that while the food was “a little off” at the beginning of the semester, the situation has deteriorated as the semester has progressed.

“My friend was eating a sandwich and there was about a quarter size of mold on it,” Freeman said. “And it got to the point where we just didn’t want to eat Atherton food anymore. So we would have to spend all of our flex dollars or go eat out at different restaurants.”

Photo courtesy of Madeline Freeman.

In response to the reports of mold, raw meat and general food quality issues, Graves said he has recently monitored dining staff and worked with them “side-by-side” to ensure they are following Bon Appétit’s food safety standards, such as food temperature checks. He noted that since they already have these policies in place, nothing has changed aside from a greater attention to detail.

As a result of COVID-19, the dining halls, like all indoor spaces on campus, have reduced capacity, and plexiglass has been set up between each place setting. Butler dining has also been tasked with preparing and delivering meals to students isolated in Ross Hall and quarantined across campus. 

There are also now fewer food options at the dining halls so students can receive food quickly and in a socially-distanced manner. Whereas students previously had a multitude of options at the four different food stations in Atherton, each of those stations now provides the exact same choices, with the exception of the allergy-friendly station Latitude. Graves said this change was made so students do not walk around the entire dining hall to find what they are looking for.

“So, it is more of the same thing because it’s the same thing at all four stations, but all four stations are also serving, you know, four to five different proteins,” Graves said “… last year we would engineer those stations to have a protein, a side, a vegetable. So you would actually have a little bit of variety.”

While there used to be one or two side dishes offered at each station, now that every station serves the same items, Bon Appétit now only provides one or two sides in total. Finite counter space has limited Bon Appétit’s ability to provide a greater variety of sides.

Allie Browning, a junior sociology and criminology major, is on a Butler meal plan because her Greek house’s kitchen is undergoing renovations this semester. Browning said because of the lack of options at the dining halls, she has resorted to eating burgers much more frequently than she would like.

“It’s all the same thing, like every single day is the same thing…” Browning said. “It’s never high quality and it’s just, it’s hard.” 

The dining hall in ResCo normally provides alternative options to the food being served at Atherton. Last year, ResCo featured a burger station, pizza station, wing station and a salad bar, but this year, both locations are serving the same meal options.

“It’s like we had the same five options, no matter what,” Freeman said. “And the options didn’t really go together. One time, we had enchiladas with Italian vegetables and cinnamon crisps.”

The lack of diverse food options this fall has been especially difficult for students with dietary restrictions, such as lactose intolerance or gluten intolerance.

Katie Yankovich, a sophomore dance performance major, is allergic to milk and is unable to eat dairy products. She said she sometimes has had to guess whether or not meal items at Atherton contain dairy in the past, but that the changes this semester have made things even more difficult.

“I feel like definitely there’s a lot less allergy-friendly options [this semester],” Yankovich said. “There’s only one option at Latitude ever… if you don’t like that, you can’t get anything else.”

Yankovich said there have been times when the online dining menu has advertised an option she could eat, but that when she arrived, the option did not fit the description given on the menu. In one incident, Yankovich said the online menu listed a vegan pasta option, but when she arrived, it was evident that the dish contained cheese.

“I asked the people and I was like, ‘is that cheese?’ and they were like, ‘yeah,’ and I was like, ‘why is it labeled vegan?’” Yankovich said. “So I didn’t get it, but it was labeled as if I could eat it.” 

Snider said as a food service business, Bon Appétit has to know that some ingredients they use are not vegetarian, and it bothers her that they still choose to use them.

“It almost feels like they’re kind of manipulating it a little bit to look like they’re giving us food that’s vegetarian, but they’re not,” Snider said.

Graves said Bon Appétit builds menus weeks in advance of serving. However, once the day comes, he said sometimes they have to pivot if there’s a supply issue that affects a specific menu item.

“We may have to actually adjust what we’re offering because of consumption,” Graves said. “So there is that possibility that what they see online and when they show up, it could be different.”

Snider is able to use the kitchen in her apartment and often uses her flex dollars to purchase food from Plum Market. However, underclassmen students who live in dorms do not have full kitchens. Snider also said she feels as though she is wasting the biggest part of her meal plan. 

For many students, the cost of a meal plan may not have been worth the quality of food they have received this year. Full meal plans cost $7,430 per academic year, and all students living in Irvington House, Residential College and Fairview House are required to purchase one. Partial meal plans, which are available to any other student, cost between $1,250 and $4,410 per academic year.

“If I have to pay the same amount as everybody else, I feel like I should be able to eat as easily as everybody else,” Snider said.

For Butler dining, the need to deliver meals to quarantined and isolated students has added another layer of complication to food service in the age of COVID-19. Graves said this is the first time Bon Appétit has tried meal delivery at Butler, as they did not have the capacity to do so in years prior since their business was originally set up to serve food on site. 

Browning and several other sorority members had to quarantine inside their house for over a week earlier this semester. However, Browning found there were issues with both the food she received and the food that never arrived. 

“Sometimes [the meals] just wouldn’t come, sometimes they were completely wrong,” Browning said. “The picture I sent [to The Butler Collegian] was that piece of bread that was moldy, I don’t even know what it was. And I ended up spending $30 on Doordash that night, just because it was so inedible that I could not eat it. It was disgusting.”

Photo courtesy of Allie Browning.

Browning said several of her sorority sisters had the same problem, and after reaching out to Butler dining about the situation, they were refunded one meal swipe. Even when food was requested and delivered on time, Browning said the food she received was not always the food that she had ordered.

“I usually would get lunch and dinner, and at least one meal per day was messed up,” Browning said. “Or there was something missing. Or their menu was completely different than what was online so they just gave us whatever they felt like.”

Students in quarantine are given a 7 p.m. deadline to place food orders for the following day. However, Graves has found many students have missed the deadline.

“We did receive some comments from students saying, ‘I didn’t receive my meal,’” Graves said. “…What we realized was that a lot of students were actually missing that cutoff. We tried to adapt if we could by making sure that we still provide them some sort of meal.”

In response to the issues that have arisen this semester, Graves said Bon Appetit wants to hear about the problems students have so they can address them.

“One of the things that we strive for is, again, if there’s issues, we want to hear about it,” Graves said. “…We definitely will take every effort to make it right for them and make sure that they’re walking out of the cafe happy and with what they want and what they expect.”

For students with ongoing dietary restrictions, Graves recommended getting in touch with Butler’s dietician, Katy Maher. There is also an opportunity to have individual meals personally made by Bon Appétit chefs to help meet these restrictions. Students can enroll in this program by contacting Graves.

Additionally, following feedback from students, ResCo dining hall will be transitioning from serving the same food as Atherton Marketplace back to a modified version of what has been in years past. Students will still be able to use their meal swipes at ResCo, and the transition can be expected this week.

Last week, Bon Appétit operated on a “student-made” menu to ensure student voices are heard in the menu design process. Graves said that in receiving student feedback, they found many students want the dining halls to provide “simpler” foods, but acknowledged that every student has different tastes.

“They want those pizzas,” Graves said. “They want the lasagna. The mac and cheese, those kinds of things. So that was probably one of the overwhelming responses that we heard is just variety and simple foods, not the ‘fancy food’ that we provide.”

Freeman said she has already noticed a difference since the student feedback campaign began. She said she is happy to see Butler dining using student voices and working to improve. 

“They’ve improved a lot,” Freeman said. “They’ve been really listening to what students need, I guess… I think they’re trying, but at the beginning, it was definitely kind of lacking.” 

However, many students like Browning, Yankovich and Snider are still calling for improvement. When asked what they would like to see from Butler dining, answers included improved food quality, more options and more attention paid to allergy-friendly food. Snider touched on the impact that food complications can have on students.

“I have anxiety, so there’s a lot of things where I like to know what’s going to happen when I go to a place or I like knowing how things are gonna work,” Snider said. “… So when things like that happen where they say they’re going to have this one thing, and then they don’t and you have to completely change whatever you’re doing, that can cause a lot of stress for people. I don’t know if they realize that but they’re not just messing with how people’s meals go, they’re messing with people’s entire days…”

Students are able to leave a café comment, talk to a dietician or fill out a satisfaction survey on Bon Appétit’s website. Students can also message staff in real time and ask for help by texting their concerns to (317) 343-8411.

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