Ranking second on Princeton Reviews list of worst college food in America certainly does not endear New College students to their dining provider. As the school’s five-year contract with Sodexo ends, the search for a new provider has piqued the interest of students and faculty.
Concerns have prompted the creation of a dining committee, composed of students and staff chosen to be representative of New College as a whole. So far the committee has focused its work on creating a comprehensive Invitation to Negotiate (ITN), issued to any interested companies, which explains what New College is looking for in a new dining contractor and how the contractor will be selected.
The first step of dining negotiations was a pre-proposal meeting, mandatory for all interested parties. Nine potential bidders arrived at Harry Sudakoff Center on Feb. 20 to tour the campus, observe the current dining format and think about their own plans for the space. These bidders ranged from small companies as local as Big E’s to multinational corporations like the returning bidder, Sodexo.
At the pre-proposal meeting, companies were expected to compile any questions they may have about the campus and its dining needs. Bidder’s questions were due four days following the tour and the answers were posted publicly thereafter. In April, bidders who are still interested will present proposals to be evaluated by the students and staff on the Dining Committee. The final contractor will be chosen on May 30. This year, a range of different companies are expected to bid.
“We were concerned with making sure we were attractive enough that we would get competition to bid,” Dean of Student Affairs Tracy Murry said. “I think that we wanted a clear definition of who we were, so that companies who might be interested in us would sort of know who we are and what we’re looking for.”
The Dining Committee made it possible for a diverse range of student and faculty perspectives to be heard in
the selection process. Voting members include six students from all four years as well as representatives from faculty and staff, including Vice President of Finance and Administration John Martin.
“Because there were enough people in the room, we were able to have conversations about our concern about sustainability, our concern about local foods, organics, and how important that was for us,” Murry said. “When you factor in pricing, quality, convenience and hours, we were able to rank all that and give vendors a good picture of who we are.”
When bidders’ presentations are complete, the committee will evaluate the companies with a point system that measures each bidder’s attractiveness regarding criteria such as sustainability, price, food quality and investment ideas. The committee will then make a suggestion to administration, which will be in charge of the final decision.
“Everybody that’s been serving on the committee would agree that the numbers have to work,” Jono Miller, head of the dining committee, said. “In order to attract a food service group, they’re going to have to perceive that they can make a profit. I think in general the administrators are probably more concerned about the numbers and the students are more concerned about the food quality. That reflects the fact that a lot of administration and faculty aren’t eating here.”
The 53-page ITN includes some of New College students’ paramount concerns, including meal plans, staffing, food quality, dining hours and relationship with the Four Winds Café.While the current infrastructure of Hamilton “Ham” Center and the dining area will be maintained at the start of a new contract, the provider will be expected to invest in New College’s dining area, making improvements as they see fit. Similarly, dining hours will not change unless the contractor submits evidence that it would benefit students.While New College, in the ITN, will maintain the Four Winds’ independence from a food provider, the contractors are encouraged to foster a relationship with the student-run café.
“Sodexo and the Café have had a very rocky relationship,” thesis student Cady Gonzalez said. “There have been a lot of negotiations. Each year there is a diff erent kind of meal plan service here, the way that students can use their Ham points has changed.”
Gonzalez is a voting member of the dining committee, assistant manager of the Four Winds Café and a food service representative. “There’s always been this rivalry [between Four Winds and Sodexo], but I think that in order to make this place successful,
you can’t have a rivalry on this campus. I think it should be mutually beneficial to everyone,” Gonzalez said.
As the potential bidders visited Four Winds on their campus tour, many approached Gonzalez with ideas, advice and support. From the ITN and the tour, bidders were able to grasp the meaning of Four Winds as an establishment belonging to New College’s history and culture. The ITN lays out minimum guidelines for expected food quality, requiring basic USDA standards for meat, dairy and other fresh ingredients. These standards, however, may be compromised in order to purchase locally-sourced products. Certain additives are always prohibited, such as tenderizers or coloring agents in fresh meat and fillers or gelatins in deli meats.
“Right now a lot of our fruits and vegetables aren’t locally sourced and they’re definitely not organic because that’s more expensive,” Vice President of the Council of Green Aff airs (CGA) and Ham Sustainability Coordinator Angelica Alexander said.
“It’s been difficult working with people at Fresh Point and Sodexo. You can’t snap your fingers and get it done “If [a provider] is more local, they would presumably want to use local [companies]. Sodexo uses Sysco and Fresh Point, so “local” can still be not that close. A lot of our boxes come from Mexico. If [the new provider] is a company that is a little inexperienced in the local market, I and the rest of the CGA would be happy to work with them.”
While sustainable and locall ysourced foods will be added to the menu, meal plan price increases may follow.
“Our dining costs are going to go up no matter what, because we have a ridiculously low cost right now,” Alexander said. “I have heard from multiple students, even ones that are financially disadvantaged, that the food here is so terrible and we have to pay so much money for terrible food, that paying a little more for good food would be worth it.”
“With those higher prices, we can’t go too high at this small college,” Gonzalez added. “We have about 40 percent Pell Grant students who would theoretically love to pay more for better food, but in reality they can’t.”
Unique dietary restrictions further complicate the search for a new dining provider. Many colleges do not face the high rates of vegan and vegetarian students that flock to Ham Center for meals.
“It’s kind of an old number, but it was 30 percent vegetarian or vegan at this school which is way higher than other places,” Alexander said.
Gluten-free and low-fat options are also popular among students. The ITN prompts bidders to provide menus and nutritional information, including possible allergens, to students. With nine potential bidders interested, many students feel that things can only get better from here. It is certain, no matter what company is chosen, that Ham Center will be seeing some changes during the next academic year.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement,” Gonzalez said. “Th ere’s a lot of concerns but over the last several months, we’ve done our best to address those concerns. Th e entire process has been to ask, ‘What do we want?’ and that has been really hard for New College,
because we know what we don’t want.”