Students speak on dining concerns

A Facebook group called “To Dining, With Love” that allows Carnegie Mellon students to voice concerns or complaints to CulinArt has gained ground, especially among first-year students. The group, hosted by Student Dormitory Council’s Housing and Dining Committee now has 803 members.

The group advertises itself on the page as a place to “talk about what dining does right and what it does wrong” and a place to “pitch ideas you think [dining services] should try out.”

Dan Evans, Student Dormitory Council Housing and Dining Services representative and first-year biology major, answers many of the concerns voiced by students. According to Evans, the idea for the Facebook page came from president of the Housing and Dining Services Committee and senior computer science major Milan Desai. Knowing that many students have strong opinions about the dining system, the Committee wanted to facilitate conversation between vendors and students. As Evans explained, the committee “trusted the student body to post reasonable requests, and for the most part that has been the case.”

Housing and Dining Services hosts a meeting at the Residence on Fifth once a month during which representatives from the Housing and Dining Services Committee have the opportunity to learn about new dining initiatives and receive student feedback. Suggestions posted on the Facebook group are now brought to these dinners as well.

Although the Facebook group is still less than a month old, changes suggested in the group have already been instituted. After students requested that napkins be more readily available in the Schatz Dining Room, the changes were implemented, and there are now napkins on every table.

Larger issues, like that of the block system, which many students consider to be expensive and inconvenient, will take longer to address. “The problem with some of these requests is that it takes time,” Evans said. “We are not going to be able to change the meal plan in two weeks … it could take a semester, it could take two.”

Evans noted that he too has done the math on the block system. A block purchased on a meal plan costs about $11. Evans agreed with students: “A block does end up being more expensive than the sum of its parts.”

Under the block system, a salad from Spinning Salad with edamame costs a student just as much as the all-you-can-eat buffet in the Schatz Dining Room. Blocks are a profitable system for vendors. As Evans points out, “Vendors make more money off blocks than when students use Dinex or cash. That’s where they are really bringing home the bacon. No pun intended.”

Other students are less critical. Fine arts first-year Kira Melville said, “The block system does have its merits. It’s helpful for students who don’t know how to manage money. It works for students who don’t care about eating healthy.”

First-year electrical and computer engineering major Maya Lassiter takes issue with the block system’s incompatibility with allergies. “It’s ridiculous that dining services requires students with specific dietary needs to pay more for food substitutions on a block,” Lassiter said. “I hope that the Facebook group gives students with special dietary needs a larger voice on campus.”

As for the complaints from students regarding excessive CulinArt advertising on the page itself, Evans says the issue has been resolved. There was a “misunderstanding between CulinArt and what they though was an appropriate amount of advertising and what the Housing and Dining Committee had envisioned.” CulinArt will now only respond directly to students’ comments and questions.

Evans and the Housing and Dining Committee hope that the group will eventually run itself with direct participation from CulinArt and other vendors on campus. Evans said, “We want to get [the] number [of members] up. We want to get as many people involved as possible. We want to get as many opinions as possible.”

Upon first receiving the invite, many students, including first-year electrical and computing engineering student Aaron Perley, thought the Facebook group was “just a place to complain unproductively about the dining system.”

Still other students in the group took offense at the onslaught of promotional material from CulinArt. As first-year mechanical engineering major Sebastian Murati, explained, “It was irritating to see CulinArt monopolize the page and make what should have been a helpful conversation into another forum for advertising.”