Student’s perspective on the dining services open forum
Anthony Centrella/Guest Opinion
December 4, 2012
Last Thursday, I attended an open forum meeting attempting to open communications between the UAF Dining Services and the students who utilize their services. This meeting was called in response comments made by a few anonymous patrons of the Lola Tilly Commons, who felt that they were being generally mismanaged and their criticisms were not being taken seriously. This is a problem that the leadership of the Dining Services takes very seriously, and they welcomed the opportunity to hear more from the student body about the services they offered.
There were not many students who came to the open forum meeting. Perhaps there was not enough notice for the meeting, or enough advertisement, or enough interest in creating change and having their voices heard, or don’t believe that the management will listen to their criticism. Regardless of the reason, both the students and the staff at the meeting honestly wished that more people had shown up to share their opinions. There were more members of the Dining Service management than there were students, and the imbalance made an open exchange of ideas much more difficult.
The meeting overall had a positive response, although it doesn’t seem there will be much direct change because of it. A few major points raised in the meeting were the difficulties with the new take-out policy at the Lola Tilly Commons, the lack of transparency from the Dining Services management to the students and the plans for the future of the campus dining.
The changes to the take-out policy this semester has been a major concern to many students, and this is not the first time it has been discussed publicly. The meeting brought up some of the concerns that the students have with the current take out policy, but most of the topic centered around the staff sharing their insights on the matter. The reason why the take-out policy changed was a note of particular interest. As a student, this was information I hadn’t heard before, and something that anyone who was affected by the change should know.
The changes the take-out policy came from two major concerns from the management: There was gross abuse of the take-out policy that cost the commons enough money to warrant investigation and change, and there were health concern issues with food being taken out of the commons. The abuse of the take-out policy came from some students taking much more food than they eat in one meal, or from taking food to feed themselves and their friends, resulting in noticeably higher food costs. As a student, I have seen this first-hand, and I agree that it was an issue that needed to be fixed. It’s a shame that the actions of the few affect the people who used the system properly, but it is an understandable and real concern. The concern with health and safety of the food is something that the Dining Services takes very seriously, as they spend a lot of effort ensuring the food they offer is cooked properly and served in a healthy manner.
The discussion of the take-out policy didn’t seem to draw any conclusions except for spreading awareness of the facts surrounding it. The students mentioned the difficulties with getting take-out meals, and that getting take-out meals takes a fair amount of effort on the part of the students, as well as the limitations of options of food for take-out meals. The only direct response from the management was that they would discuss the issue and options to try and come up with a solution to the problem. This answer is unsatisfying as a student, because that was the purpose of the open forum meeting in my mind. As a consolation, the discussion about updating the take-out policy and ongoing, but the lack of direct results is unfortunate.
As a student, the most comforting responses came from Raaj Kurapati, the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Financial Services and Business Operations, on the subject of transparency. He identified a major problem with the Dining Services ability to share important information with the student body, and I agree with his assessment. There were many instances in the meeting where the students simply did not know why a change was made, or what the options were, or if anything was being done about a specific problem. The Dining Services agreed that it was a good idea to share more insight, and to post more information that students should know.
This is really why the meeting started in the first place. There are always improvements to be made and issues to be discussed, but the unrest that sparked this meeting specifically centered on the students’ feeling their comments were not being taken seriously. More transparency is a step in the right direction, but it is not the end of the problem. The management of the Dining Services brought up their main concern was to get helpful feedback from the students and learn how to make effective improvements to their facilities. I think that is a noble effort, and the student input seems to be improving over the years, but there are still problems establishing an open communication.
The student comments at the Lola Tilly Commons exposed some of the difficulty with communications. A month ago, there were a few students who wrote extensive analysis of why they felt the communications with the Dining Services management was failing. The students felt their criticisms were met with dismissive and defensive responses, and this set up an atmosphere where they didn’t want to share their opinion. The open forum meeting was a suggestion from the students as a means to fix communications. However, the meeting took a long time to set up, and because not many students showed up, I can assume that the students’ interest in communicating has waned. There are only a few comments on the comment board today, and they are all positive in nature. There was a missed opportunity to open the communication lines.
Finally, there are a lot of changes in the future of Dining Services. The plans have been finalized for a new food service area near the Wood Center. This will fundamentally change the way UAF conducts their food services to their students. There are still a lot of details to work out, but this has left much of the Dining Services staff very busy with updates and improvements. There were a few other topics discussed, such as student access to nutrition information and the financial cost of meal plans, most of which fell in with Dining Services sharing more information with the students.
I can see that the interests of the staff and the interest of the students is the same; they both want the student dining experience to be as good as possible and they both want to be able to communicate if something isn’t working out. The open forum meeting was not a huge success, but nothing bad came out of it. I don’t think it will bring about any significant changes as no major solutions were found, but it was successful at informing a few people of the concerns of the students, and exposing some of the flaws with the current communications between the Dining Commons and the students who use its services.