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June 14, 2004

Free lunch for faculty, staff offers a taste of dining hall changes

By Louise Donahue

If you haven’t been to a campus dining hall lately, Wednesday might be a good time to check one out. Faculty and staff members are invited to a free lunch at their nearest campus dining hall from noon to 1:30 p.m. on June 16. (Crown-Merrill Dining Hall is undergoing repairs, and won’t be open that day.)

The “soft opening” of the new university-run dining hall service is the culmination of months of surveys, menu changes, staff training, and planning as the campus prepares to launch its own dining service.

“We want to showcase what we can do and get feedback,” said Alma Sifuentes, director of residential and dining services, noting that Dining Services offers salads, vegan and vegetarian options, as well as soup, sandwiches, and desserts. “Our primary goal is a seamless transition. We’ve been working for this day for 15 months so the fact that it’s almost here is exhilarating.”

It was back in September of 2003 that employees for the Sodexho company, which then provided campus dining services, reapplied to become UCSC employees, in preparation for the June 20 transition to a UCSC-run dining operation. Sodexho’s role in managing dining service continued in the interim as the University Dining Services Transition Team developed and implemented the business plan and the organizational infrastracture.

Living wage for workers

A key reason for the change to a university-run dining service was to provide workers with a living wage as part of a UC workforce, matching dining services with the values and mission of the university and student expectations. The change also was designed to allow the campus to have closer control of dining services.
Workers hired by UCSC saw an average pay increase of about $3 an hour, from an average of $8.50 to $11.50. Under Sodexho, most employees were part-timers without benefits, but they now are receiving UC benefits.

“They’ve been very, very appreciative,” Sifuentes said. “I think they’ve appreciated feeling part of the campus.” Back in spring quarter, the new employees were given five days of training, including a trip to the library and other campus resources, and a certificate to mark completion of their training.

“Many had worked at UCSC for years, and for some of them it was the first time they had ever received any recognition,” Sifuentes said, noting that several employees were photographed with their certificates. “That was particularly poignant for me,” said Sifuentes.

The most controversial result of the changeover is the requirement that students living in apartments pay for a dining hall meal plan. This is necessary because labor costs are now a substantial part of the campus dining services budget, Sifuentes explained.

'Significant' cost increase

“For someone living in an apartment, the increase will be significant,” Sifuentes said. To cushion the blow, Dining Services is consulting with student groups, including an advisory group at Kresge, where all the students live in apartments rather than residence halls. One possibility, Sifuentes said, is that students in apartments will be able to use their meal plan money to buy food staples so they can cook for themselves.

Responsiveness is one of the benefits of the new system, Sifuentes said. “We’re going to respond faster to the feedback we get.” Dining hall hours are being changed to reflect preferences expressed in surveys and focus groups. Meal plans will continue to be all-you-care-to-eat, but now students may come in the dining hall as many times as they want throughout the day without plan restrictions. “We now know that students don’t hold traditional meal hours.”

Dining Services is also working closely with the Student Environmental Center and the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems to increase the amount of organic and locally grown produce as well as sustainable food products. “The goal for this coming year is to have 2 percent of the dining services produce meet sustainability guidelines,” said Sifuentes. “The percentage may seem small, but there are limitations in availability of locally and organically grown product.”

Produce from UCSC Farm

Sifuentes said the campus Farm will provide fresh produce and flowers, when available, and education on sustainable food systems will be available in the dining halls.

The changes have drawn some notice to Dining Services, which recently picked up two awards. An Excellence in Diversity award from the Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Office cited the bilingual training program for the new Dining Services workforce, which includes many Spanish-speaking Latinos who do not speak English.

A second award, at the Sustainability Awards Ceremony, praised University Dining’s leadership in campus sustainability and the introduction of Community Agroecology Network-certified fair-trade coffee in dining halls, which will also be available in the coffee carts on Science Hill beginning in the next academic year (see earlier Currents story). Use of electric vehicles and composting were also cited in the award.

The Division of Student Affairs also recognized the efforts of the dining transition by awarding the University Dining Services Transition Team its Annual Certificate of Merit in recognition of exemplary support of new and innovative programs that advance the effectiveness and efficiency of services to students.
While the dining halls have always been open to faculty and staff as well as students, Sifuentes said there is a new emphasis on attracting a broader clientele.

“We really want to reach out to our faculty and staff. This is a work in progress and our goal is to be able to meet their dining needs to make this happen. In turn, we hope that the campus assists us by letting us know what those needs are."

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