By Sarah Beth Huntley
One of Vanderbilt’s biggest platform points as an institution is providing for the welfare of all students. When we all decided to come here, we put our faith in the administration’s hands to take care of our simplest needs. Today, however, they continue to disappoint us. Since the beginning of the semester, Vandy Campus Dining has caused lots of controversy due to lack of options and accessibility, among other things. Many students have strong feelings about these issues, yet there seems to be a lack of response from the other side. To get to the bottom of this issue, I first looked into current dining guidelines and protocols, as well as the issues many students have with them.
Right now, due to Vanderbilt COVID-19 guidelines and a lack of staff, Rand Dining Hall is open continuously from 7 AM-3 PM on weekdays and opens at 9 AM on weekends for continental breakfast. Not only are the lines in Rand tremendously long, but the lack of dinner service is extremely disappointing to students, as Rand presents the most options of any dining hall on main campus. While other dining halls on main campus (like EBI and Zeppos) are open for dinner, many students are dismayed by their lack of options, especially for those with dietary needs. “As someone who’s pescatarian, it’s very hard to get anything that’s not chicken or meat,” said senior Shun Ahmed, VSG Chair of Campus Life.
Other complaints around dinner involve issues with closing times, considering both EBI and Zeppos close at 7:30 PM. “On a Thursday night, it’s not even 8 o’clock and I’m trying to find dinner. All the dining halls are closed,” explained sophomore Chloe Paravicini. “You can’t be forcing us to live on campus all four years and have a meal plan if you’re not gonna have dining halls open for us to eat at.” These issues don’t exist only on main campus, as long lines stretch throughout the Commons Center as well, with Campus Dining even reporting serving 627 students in a one-hour time frame on Commons earlier this semester. “The lines are really confusing and for a while people were waiting in the wrong lines,” said first-year Lola about the issue.
There have also been reports of food insecurity caused by these shortened mealtimes and the lack of options. Many students I spoke to expressed frustrations about not having time between classes or in the evenings to get all the meals they would like. “I think, honestly, it’s causing students to skip a lot of meals that they may not wanna skip,” said sophomore Sarah Schwartz as she expressed sentiments about not having enough time to get meals most days. “It [also] sucks because we do pay for the meal plans and I’m not getting the three meals a day I’m supposed to be getting,” lamented first-year Ashley. Food insecurity doesn’t just arise from the wait times either. Shun Ahmed, who works closely with Campus Dining, spoke with me about the many reasons why students aren’t getting all their meals. She talked about how “…covid anxiety is still a thing,” and how “….eating disorder-wise...a lot of people have started to steer away from using their meal swipes…” because of the dining staff checking how much food they have and sometimes telling them it’s too much. “There’s this forced, almost Eurocentric standard of what you’re supposed to eat,” explained Shun. “They told me to go get help instead of realizing ‘Hey, your methods are what’s promoting this.’”
So what has caused these issues? Many people have been talking about the problems supposedly revolving around a staff strike in protest of low wages. The biggest rumor going around lately has been that the dining halls were understaffed by around 100 workers because their starting wages are $13/hour. This is a hot button issue, considering every student I interviewed said Vanderbilt should be paying their dining staff more. However, in a town hall last Monday, Vice Chancellor of Auxiliary Services David ter Kuile provided other reasoning for the shortages. “Campus Dining understood the challenges that were coming and began working with a central HR department in May to really work on recruitment,” he said, explaining that recruitment was a big part of their process but they, unfortunately, had many staff drop at the last minute. Since, they have been doing their best to both balance their lack of workers and provide efficient food service to students. He explained how they’ve done this through streamlining Rand services with “student favorites,” making Rand continuous service until 3 pm, and providing other meal options such as food trucks to shorten lines. They also have been working to recruit more workers, with Vice Chancellor ter Kuile announcing that they signed a temporary contract with the dining union to provide incentives and bonuses to workers until they can sign the official contract in November with any wage changes they agree upon. “Any wage changes have to be negotiated,” he said in relation to dining staff and their union.
While it is clear that administrators are putting in effort to an extent, one thing they are not doing is listening to students. For example, Vice Chancellor ter Kuile mentioned providing “student favorites” without acknowledging the lack of options for students with specific dietary needs. He also claimed that waits were no longer than 15 minutes in lines at Rand, which many students can attest. There have also been several complaints about food trucks, which have both longer lines than Rand and much more limited options. “Even though they’re there, they’re still inaccessible,” said sophomore Aman Momin.
I also talked to VSG President and Vice President Hannah Bruns and Kayla Prowell about their efforts to battle food insecurity on campus and to make administration aware of students’ issues. “You know, obviously, I don’t wanna speak for all of the VSG members currently, but I think, you know, a lot of the sentiment that has been expressed in some of our meetings has been frustrating,” said Kayla. “I think it’s frustrating because it feels like we’re so in the dark sometimes.” Hannah expressed similar feelings, describing the situation as “concerning.” However, they both are advocating for change, as well as making their own. “Our Campus Life Committee is working on installing a permanent food pantry on campus. You know, this is gonna be free food open to everyone on campus to come and help get some more food security,” said Kayla. They both expressed their hopes that this could be a long-term project, as they are working currently to foster relationships with food pantries around the Nashville area to provide good food for students with dietary restrictions from their surpluses. They plan to have the pantry fully up and running before the end of the semester.
They are also working to keep administration up to date on issues students are having with dining by providing them with updates on student dining issues frequently. Hannah met with Campus Dining earlier this semester already and discovered that this was definitely going to be an uphill battle. “It’s very clear that there’s certain things they will not budge on, which is frustrating to say the least,” she said of the situation. “Hopefully, dining will be more open to hearing concerns and being willing to change some of their policy stances.” Both Hannah and Kayla expressed frustration that the situation is, ultimately, out of their hands, but continue to advocate for change and be a voice for students on campus. “We’re just trying to do what we can as an organization to take action,” said Hannah.
In the meantime, there are plenty of things students can be doing to let campus dining know about issues they are having with wait times and lack of options for dietary restrictions. One thing Shun suggests is sending Campus Dining short texts or emails to let them know about specific problems they’re having. “We have the texting platform right now where you can text in with the dining announcements and be like ‘Hey, there’s no ketchup in Rand.’ And they see it, and restock it, but no one knows about that,” she said. “It’s very hard for me to tell someone that this is an issue when I don’t have empirical numbers.” She concluded that this is a big part of the issue, saying “no one is talking to each other.” At the end of the day, however, she recognizes that there is only so much dining staff can do as they are “understaffed and under-resourced” and suggests cutting dining staff some slack. “They deserve a break. Honestly, they just need a vacation.”
It’s clear to me that the issues with Campus Dining aren’t black and white and can’t be fixed with a snap of admin’s fingers. However, as frustrating as it might be, we as students can continue to hold them accountable, let them know of issues, and advocate for better accessibility and food security. I just ask that everyone be respectful to dining staff as well; we’re not the only ones getting the short end of the stick.
Campus Dining did not respond to my request for comment.