Observing the Higher Powers: Dining Services Should Be Outsourced

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore students, by and large, are unhappy with Sharples. I don’t think that statement is particularly controversial; I think it reflects one of the major flaws in the residential experience here. Considering that improving the student experience is implied as a goal of the strategic plan, doing something about food at Swat seems like an element of that. Now there are certainly ways of taking the existing structures and revamping them to better serve students. But I don’t think that’s going to fundamentally address the issues. Instead, I think Swarthmore should outsource its food service if meaningfully improving its quality is a priority.

First, let’s consider the issue of local foods and sustainability. There’s a real reason why everyone on campus enjoys “local foods” night: the quality of what we’re served is drastically higher than what we get every other day of the school year. There is inherent value in regularly consuming more locally produced, sustainably grown food. It helps us reduce the carbon footprint of our consumption. That is an admirable goal that Swarthmore should prioritize as part of its commitment to sustainability.

Now to be fair, Dining Services do regularly offer a variety of locally-sourced foods in Sharples. That said, there are limits to their offerings, and expanding them certainly appears to be a challenge. In a roundabout way, this is where outsourcing can actually have an advantage over trying to source these products on a single-school basis.

If Swarthmore outsources its food service, the company it chooses is inevitably going to be more national and be responsible for providing food for more than one institution. This means more resources can be devoted to sourcing these products for Swat. As it currently stands, it’s difficult to justify allocating an entire staff member’s time to sourcing and purchasing local and sustainable foods. It’s simply not economically efficient. A larger company would be able to pool resources and more efficiently locate, source, and provide these resources than a single campus feeding only 1,500 students ever could.

Following this line of logic, outsourced food service benefits from economies of scale in a more broad way. By purchasing food for a larger group of people, a food service company would pay less than it would cost for a single college to buy the same food. In fact, Swarthmore currently sources some of its food and drink products in this way. We purchase our soft drinks in arrangement with other local colleges in order to increase the number of students in the contract and lower costs for everyone. And, if we’re interested in purchasing more local foods, which can be more expensive, doing more joint purchasing will allow us to decrease the cost of foods that we don’t source locally, like cereal. The money saved could be redirected towards other foods, improving the overall quality of the food we eat.

Outsourcing our food service would have the benefit of creating more of an incentive to be responsive to students’ wants and needs. Obviously budgets are important when making purchasing decisions, but it seems evident that an important goal for any food service here should be making the key consumers of the food – the students – happy with what they’re provided. The way our food service is currently structured gives little incentive for that to happen. If we don’t like what we’re served, we’re encouraged to scribble our dissatisfaction on a paper napkin. If food service is outsourced, the company chosen would have a contract with the college. If, at the end of the duration of the contract, students are unhappy with what they’re being provided, the college has the ability for recourse. They can either stipulate changes in the contract in order for it to be renewed, or they can simply decide to replace the vendor. In either case, sufficient incentives exist to make the food service provider responsive to the needs and wants of both the school and the students.

Now, one of the biggest objections around the issue of outsourcing in general is the subject of labor and what happens to the workers when such a change is made. The concern is clearly legitimate, but I don’t see it being a big issue if Swarthmore was to outsource its food service. First off, it’s wrong to assume that a new company would choose not to hire any of the current employees of dining service as a part of the changeover. Rather, what’s more likely is that many of the current employees, both in Sharples and in other places across campus, would be kept on and continue to work for whoever the new provider would be. Additionally, the college would have significant leeway in selecting a vendor whose labor practices and values matched up with Swarthmore’s when choosing who to contract with. Things such as salaries, benefits, and labor rules can be determined during the negotiation process with a vendor. The market for food service providers contains more than a single firm. We’d be able to select the one we felt best matched our priorities. That said, it’s important that we recognize the important work that Dining Services employees do for us every day.

Considering that Sharples as a facility has been identified as an area in need of work as part of the strategic plan, it’s clear that changes will be happening to dining at Swarthmore over the next several years. If the College truly cares about improving the amount of local and sustainable food available for students and increasing the quality of our dining experience, then the College really should think long and hard about who’s providing the food. Outsourcing seems to be the best option for the long haul if those truly are the college’s priorities.


  1. I totally agree that Sharples is inadequate. When students dread eating, that’s not a good thing. However, I would much rather have the boring, limited, and repetitive food of Sharples than see wages lowered and Sharples employees lose their jobs. It’s pretty obvious, as you said in your article, but if anything about Sharples were to change, I think that we as a campus should work to ensure that not a single dining services employee loses their job as a result of the switch. The problem with Sharples does not lie with the employees but with the types of food served, how it’s served, and when it’s served. But seriously, a change would be wonderful.

    tl;dr I hate the food at Sharples but I don’t want any Sharples employees to lose their jobs.

  2. I’ve had plenty of institutional food that’s much worse. I actually stick up for Sharples. But if we want to change the food service provider, I’m with the comment above: the friendly staff is the source of my Sharples loyalty.

  3. Many campuses allow the food plan/card to be used at local restaurants. This helps to support local restaurants, and increases the quality of the dining experience.

  4. I think your first statement about Sharples’s inadequacy being “not controversial” is a massive assumption. Sharples is an amazing place, whether considered on its own or in comparison to other college dining halls. Some people do have legitimate concerns and complaints when talking about Sharples, but from what I hear, for the most part it is a general underappreciation of our dining priviledges.

    • I agree with you in sentiment, however I don’t know if I would call dining in Sharples a privilege. I’m paying an average of $10 a meal to dine in Sharples. It’s a service my family and I pay top dollar for. I would call it an exchange more so than a privilege.

      • I completely agree that Sharples is expensive for the quality we get. I think that I, someone with limited cooking experience, could get groceries and make better and often healthier meals than what is provided in Sharples for a cheaper price. $10 does not seem legitimate when the food options are so limited and not tasteful that all I get is a bowl of cereal or a salad. Many schools take the approach of paying per item, and I am not arguing that we do this per se, but it doesn’t seem fair that students who hate the food and don’t eat much are spending that much money. I think outsourcing could be great.

        Some people have earlier stated that food at other schools is worse, but I disagree. Comparable schools such as Carleton, Wesleyan, Bowdoin, Amherst all have better dining options, whether it be 2 dining halls, better meal system, or just overall more options in the dining hall.

        It would be easier if meals could be used at all food locations (Kohlberg, etc) and if the hours were more realistic in these locations as well as Sharples. Just this morning I was talking about how Sharples is supposedly open for breakfast until 9:30 (which is not that late), but when I got there at 9:10 there was nearly no hot food left and they were already cleaning up. I essentially wasted a meal by eating breakfast there, but there is NO way of knowing what is left until you get to the kitchen. Sometimes breakfast is available later, but typically, it is not.

        I also think Swat really needs to consider a better late night alternative- we study late late late and there is Essie Mae’s, but that is one option of basically all grilled food and often times the grill is shut off or whatever. It doesn’t help that the Ville has a very limited selection, the co-op is expensive, and nothing is open late in the Ville anyway.

        Also, the times Essie Mae’s is open do not coincide with the times Sharples is closed & you cannot use meals at all times there, which is highly unfortunate because it could be an alternative.

        The main issue here I think is the lack of variety in choice of foods and times to get them. I think Swarthmore needs to seriously revamp it’s meal services, while continuing forward with great, friendly employees.

        Maybe Swarthmore could create a student group devoted to researching alternative options by looking at other colleges, companies, cost/benefit analysis, etc. Whatever happens, we need serious change.

        • My main gripe right now is the inequity in meal equivalencies. At nearly $10 a meal, why do I only get $4 worth of food? Labor costs are supposed to be included in pricing (hence why out of pocket costs are the same). I don’t know where my money is going.

    • I’m pretty sure that Bryn Mawr’s dining hall is in-house. They save a TON on labor by requiring all first-year students to work in food services (not a viable proposition at Swat for many reasons, e.g. reliability during midterms/finals week). Paying students close to minimum wage is a lot cheaper than paying local employees a living wage plus benefits.

  5. Having eaten at quite a few college dining halls at comparable institutions, I can tell you that you’re going to have a very hard time finding one that’s better than Sharples. I for one am quite satisfied with it.

    Your argument also doesn’t remotely make sense. You start off by complaining about the quality of Sharples, but your only argument for using an outsourced food company is the price. My impression is that outside food service companies produce extremely LOW quality food, that is not remotely made using local products. That’s how they’re able to operate. So yes, we would see a dramatic reduction in price, but there would be an even larger reduction in quality, availability of choice, and malleability.

    Generally, when dealing with a large company, especially a large food company, a single customer is going to have absolutely no power to customize their food selection. You get what you get. If you want to take your custom elsewhere, they won’t blink. We’re a drop in the bucket for their bottom line.

    All this is based on my experiences with large food providers, having worked in other dining halls and dealt with them.

    No, Sharples isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what other schools get, and it’s a hell of a lot better than an outsourced alternative.


  6. You make several assumptions in your article that I disagree with.

    The first (as mentioned by several other people) is the assumption that all students are displeased with Sharples. They don’t please everyone all the time (and cannot within reason do that), but they do a good job of making many choices available. As someone who has worked in commercial kitchens, I can attest to the fact that their job is not easy. I have great respect for what they do accomplish, even when I see room for improvement. I’d also like to point out that Sharples is very receptive to student input on the napkin board.

    The second assumption is that the food would be much better if it were provided by a national chain. You use the quality of the food on local food night as an example, however that is actually a counter-example to what you are talking about. The foods on local food night for the most part come from local specialty producers: small businesses and small farms. The foods are better than the average Sharples fare because they come from people who spend their days making one type of food and get very good at it. Switching Swarthmore’s food source to a national chain would move in the opposite direction- more mass produced food, less individualized attention to the food. Let me use the ML breakfast room as an example. Most people who eat in the breakfast room agree that it is better than Sharples. As a breakfast room cook, I can tell you that we use the same ingredients as Sharples, but because we cook for a smaller group of people, we can give more attention and effort to the food, and it comes out better. National food service chains would not do this. I have eaten in seven different college cafeterias. Those with their own independent food service were generally better than those without.

    Sharples isn’t perfect, but they do a better job than most students give them credit for.

  7. Great article. It’s absolutely egregious that Swarthmore can get away with murder in terms of our dining experience. I think it’s especially manipulative because of the lack of legitimate or appealing local off-campus dining alternatives. Further, the administration is aware of the fact that the overwhelming majority of students have few alternatives for off-campus housing, and as a result live on campus. In turn, the administration is aware that it will make its biggest buck by forcing this large segment of the student body to subscribe to the meal plan, while providing them with just about as low quality food as possible. Colleges are businesses, people. “The Sharples experience” is an example of the economic manipulation of Swarthmore’s student body at its finest.

    • there are actually a number of off-campus housing alternatives that are considerably cheaper than on-campus housing. for such a small town, we have three different apartment complexes (graylock, dartmouth and the swarthmore), several apartments in the ville as well as a few private residences up for rent each year. i think the majority of students choose to live on campus because it’s convenient or makes more sense financially than paying rent monthly, not because they have no other choice.

  8. Sharples food is great institutional food, but its hours and tray-return system are silly. And no meals at Kohlberg/Science Center, whaaaat? We have to overhaul the whole system, and by that I mean the nitty gritty details, not the food providers themselves.

  9. I agree with Eugenia. Many people including myself like Sharples. I think they do a great job. Frankly I don’t think the food there is “boring” “limited” or “repetitive”. Yes they serve the same menu every four weeks, but frankly my mother probably serves basically the same dishes every month and she had a career as a chef for many years. And on any given night there are at least four different options of what to eat plus four different kinds of soup, a salad bar and deli. That is not limited.
    There are certainly aspects that could be improved, but the reality is that this is what you get when you try to feed a large number of people out of one kitchen every night. Yes it would be lovely if we could have local foods night every night, but even if the catering was outsourced that would still be a lot more expensive. I’m sure that hiring any for-profit company would be a lot more expensive. Sharples does a great job working with what they have and frankly feeding the students gourmet dinners every might is not one of the college’s priorities. The college’s responsibility as a employer is a priority and I am proud to go to a school that values their employees.

  10. Having served on the Dining Committee, I know the enormous effort Sharples takes to accommodate students’ requests and needs. Did you know they work closely with students with severe food allergies and prepare separate meals for them? They have a separate fridge for special dietary needs such as gluten free products. I don’t think outsourcing would sufficiently meet these needs.
    The reality is that students love to hate on dining hall food so even with the switch to outsourced dining services, the criticisms, complaints and dissatisfaction will remain.

  11. I think that although many of us complain about Sharples food in the way that privileged students at an elite college tend to do (especially when deep-fried seafood bar rolls around), we also understand that Sharples usually provides edible and healthy options–options which, as a commenter pointed out above, are much more varied and delicious than those offered at other, similar institutions. Just go visit a friend and see for yourself. If you’re even the tiniest bit creative, you can always find/make something good to eat at Sharples.

    As for your local foods argument, I think that it would be beneficial to learn how specific food services companies *actually* work. Are there really food services companies out there who would be more successful at/dedicated to getting local food to our campus, or is your argument a purely theoretical one? From what I see, Sharples does a pretty good job getting local food into our meals and, through this, has forged some meaningful bonds with local farms and companies that bigger companies might not actually be doing.

    Lastly, the kind and dedicated Sharples staff is always open to suggestions. For example, they revamped the somewhat unpopular fish taco bar this year by adding grilled catfish, which is legitimately really good. If you want to add something to the menu, need a special meal plan because of allergies, or even if you want to express your general dissatisfaction, just talk to Therese Hopson. They *want* to serve food that people like and accommodate us to the best of their abilities. I think this is certainly a saner and simpler option than calling to overthrow Sharples as is.

  12. There are 3 general assumptions about outsourcing campus services in this article that I would like to challenge.

    The author suggests that outsourcing would mean that “more resources can be devoted to sourcing these products for Swat.” In my experience, outsourcing campus services often equates to less choice for an individual campus rather than more.
    A large company with clients all over the country will make purchasing decisions based on the preferences of the majority and the best bottom-line deals they can make. Their largest individual clients with 40,000 or 50,000 students may be able to influence those buying decisions. Their smaller clients (like Swarthmore) would have little voice.

    It would seem clear that outsourcing would bring economies of scale. But within the campus services with which I am familiar, buying groups exists that provide pricing equity—and sometimes even pricing preference—to their member campuses.
    With outsourcing, the national company can negotiate pricing so that the individual campus pays the same price as they would have on their own and the negotiated price concession goes directly to the corporation. In the case of buying groups for independent campus services, all of the negotiated savings go to the member campus.

    “Outsourcing our food service would have the benefit of creating more of an incentive to be responsive to students’ wants and needs.” Swarthmore is a top-notch institution of higher education. But from the perspective of an outside company leasing campus services, we would be a tiny fish in an enormous pond. Most outsourcing companies’ managers would be responsive to company directives and company profit more than anything else.
    Our dining service employees are just that—our employees. Our employees will always be more responsive to our needs than the employees of an outside company.

    Just some Food for Thought (I couldn’t resist!)….

  13. I want to echo Anna ’12.

    I feel we are often privileged in more ways than we know. I’ll admit that I am not pleased with Sharples every day of the week, every meal, and that this *is* a cost to my family and others’ — but I am pleased most of the time, for which I am grateful. I feel that the Sharples employees are — and I hope that they themselves feel — part of the larger college community. Dining Services’ willingness to adapt their menu to students’ concerns (shout-out to fish taco bar), accommodate students with food allergies, and provide various options (including vegeterarian and vegan) should be commended.

    I am a little concerned with how little attention this op-ed dedicates to the workers with rights within in the community. Yes, organic, local food is great — but what at what cost to the students and employees? I imagine this would only make meals more expensive, or severely limit employees’ rights — both of which are problems.

    Secondly, it seems, as Anna ’12 suggests, untenable for this op-ed to call for outside vendors when the author does not express a concrete understanding of how these outside vendors would actually work, let alone how they would *actually* treat workers. I myself am not willing to support a nameless and hypothetical big food company without first knowing how negotiations with workers have gone in the past, and what kind of history that company has when it comes to hiring/not hiring workers in a dining hall after it is contracted by a college to supply food.

    Don’t get me wrong: I do not want to assume the worst. But I also feel it is dangerous to assume, in an uncritical way, that “most” workers will be hired back, and that negotiations can seamlessly and easily “be determined during the negotiation process with a vendor.”

  14. I would like to echo what Dante and others have posted about this article’s disturbing lack of attention to the implications that subcontracting food service would have for staff community members.

    Adam, and others, I understand that you may be dissatisfied with the food that is served at Sharples. While I fundamentally disagree with your assessment (I think that Sharples staff does an incredible job at offering students diverse, fresh options for students with a myriad of difficult preferences and dietary restrictions), I feel that your conclusion that the answer to your Res Life woes is to unilaterally demand that staff be employed by a third-party corporation (and that the management structure, pay system, and all of the operations of Sharples be overturned in favor of more “cost-effective” strategies that will, allegedly, allow food to be more to your liking) is inconsiderate, negligent, and, frankly, ignorant to the realities of what subcontracting would mean for staff community members.

    Subcontracting (you call it “outsourcing”) would mean that instead of the College directly employing dining staff, these members of our community would be paid and managed by a subsidiary company. There is probably a 90% chance that this would one of the large food service corporations (Aramark, Sodexo, Compass, or Bon Appetit). They would no longer be college employees. And while this does not necessarily mean that the company would replace staff, because these subcontracting companies often use standardized, hyper-efficient practices to cut costs, it would be a likely impulse. Most food service firms also have their own management pool, meaning that the company has free reign to hire and fire staff, change policies to make work more “efficient” at the expense of workers’ needs, etc…

    In order to compete to keep their contracts with universities, these companies employ often all sorts of measures to cut corners at the expense of staff members. They cannot get our college’s business if they don’t provide a service at low-cost, and they’re up against other companies in a race-to-the-bottom. Companies like Sodexo and Aramark have ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS been charged with wage theft (making staff work through breaks, forcing staff to clock out then making them work after-hours, etc.) and other unacceptable labor violations.

    Swarthmore has committed to a living wage and certain benefits packages for staff. If dining services staff in our community were to be employed by an external company, it would be very difficult if not impossible to ensure the same standards.

    I understand that Sharples food does not meet your standards, but are you willing to claim that imposing all of these changes (including, potentially, lifestyle-altering changes in pay and hours) on staff members in our community, some of whom have been working here for 10, 15, and 20 years, is justified based on your dissatisfaction?

  15. Sharples is expensive for the food that we get because of living wages and employee benefits. We believe in equality so we pay staff more than market wages; they’re happy so we get a positive environment and a sense of having done good. It’s a reasonable tradeoff that will be present no matter who runs Sharples (though efficiency could matter, I don’t know how much of an improvement could be made).

    It would be easier to just add a well-stocked spice rack to Sharples so we could sprinkle on the flavor. If that’s too vulnerable to spice theft, the cooks could add spices and herbs themselves.

  16. @Dani ’12: I think that you take an overly cynical position in assuming that the college would select from only national and multinational food service providers when considering a dining subcontractor. I’d like to point out that there are plenty of smaller institutional food service companies with good missions that a place like Swarthmore and its students might like a lot. Take Sustainable Fare (sustainablefare.com), an environmentally friendly institutional food service that provides dining options at independent schools in PA and NJ and throughout the Northeast.

    Also, I’d like to agree with the point being made by others above that our dining services are not actually a privilege being benevolently bestowed on us, but a service that we are paying a lot of money for (and that we cannot opt out of unless we move off of campus). Because we are paying for this service, we should make sure that we are getting the best possible quality for our budget. While it might not ultimately make sense for Swarthmore to begin subcontracting dining services, the idea that so much of the student body is unhappy with the quality of the food here (me included) merits at least researching which options would be feasible for the school and deciding what to do from there…

    Let’s not just reject the idea before we do any research about the pros and cons of subcontracting.

  17. *I find that responsiveness is one way that Swarthmore’s dining service outshines others. The napkin board is a casual and welcoming way for community members to share their thoughts about their dining experience. If you feel that the napkin board is inadequate for your issue, you are always welcomed to email the staff or go to the office and speak to someone directly. When I read the napkins on the board, I find that they are nearly all expressions of thanks or compliments for something good. The rest are requests that are responded to by the actual people who plan and prepare the food – valuable community members worthy of your respect. Students with more serious allergy or other needs are addressed on a per person basis. Do not be so sure that a for profit “more national” food service company with which the college signed a multi-year contract would be interested at all in an individual student’s likes and dislikes. They would only be concerned with keeping the majority satisfied enough to keep their contract, while keeping their expenses as low as possible.

    *Speaking of expenses, let’s consider your 10$ cost per meal dilemma. When students buy a meal plan, that money goes to the college. Portions of the money are used to furnish and maintain college facilities. Portions of the money are used to compensate the staff in the manner that the college community as a whole has decided is appropriate. A portion of the money goes to the purchase of food ingredients. This is not unlike a restaurant or other food service institution that has to pay overhead. Personally, I cannot buy a pizza dinner for one for 10$, let alone the endless variety of all you can eat that is available in Sharples. When you consider cooking for yourself for 10$ a meal, be sure to factor in the rent on the kitchen you are cooking in, the water bill, the electric bill and the time and work you have in planning, purchasing, carrying to your home, storing, preparing, and cleaning up your meal. Also be sure to turn the lights on to eat by, acquire a plate and cutlery to eat with, and choose a beverage to go alongside. This all must be done for your ten dollars. I can’t do this at home with all-local ingredients, can you? I don’t see a for-profit company doing this, and providing more varied higher quality ingredients, and still making themselves a profit. The idea that a corporation like Bon Appetit Management would put the money saved on bulk cereal towards more local lettuce is naïve. That money is their profit, except for the portion of it they use to make and maintain their glitzy webpage and other marketing devices.

    * As for food options, when I go to the Amherst dining services web site and look at their menu, I see three hot food lines, but one is always pasta with one sauce option – every day. Sharples has three hot lines that change daily, and a grille where you can have items cooked to order at lunch and dinner. Amherst has pizza – every day. At Bowdoin College for dinner on Monday they had Pasta with marinara, macaroni and cheese, BBQ chicken, chicken and tuna deli salads and tossed garden salad. Do you think their deli also had 5 kinds of cheese, three kinds of wraps and 6 kinds of deli meat? I don’t. Do you think their tossed garden salad had 1/8 the items in it that Sharples’ salad bar has at lunch and dinner every day? I don’t. Do you think that these items are available all you can eat (and/or pack to take with you as the case may be)? I don’t. For dessert they had cookies and fresh “seasonal fruit”. I don’t see all you can eat locally made ice cream and frozen yogurt on the list. Do you think they offered two additional hot vegan/vegetarian entrées that they just happened not to list? I don’t. Swarthmore has historically valued having one dining hall where all students eat together. Swarthmore has also valued the residential college experience where students live on campus. These values are part of what makes Swarthmore what it is. I would not expect two dining halls to mean twice the options. As far as I can see, one Sharples outshines a herd of other facilities. If you can think of a dish or item that you would like to have that is not already available from dining services, be it Sharples, Essie Mae’s or the coffee bars suggest it. The staff give lots of opportunities to make suggestions. Send in a recipe! Join the dining services committee! Participate!

    *At Swarthmore, we propose equality and the value of all people – whether they are high achieving students, faculty doing innovative research, or staff devoting in many cases decades of their lives in service of the College, working behind the scenes to allow students and faculty to do their best. The college “owning” dining services means that all of the staff, including food service, are college employees and work under the same rules, with the same protections as all other employees. This also means that there are no middle men between the people on the ground making the food, serving it, planning it and those consuming it. All are working towards the same goals, without any ulterior motives (like making profit for a contract company) getting in the way. The only objective dining services has is to support the current and future wellbeing of the college as a whole, and to satisfy the needs of the students and other community members. One guarantee with a “for profit” company is that this would not be the case.

    • I’m pretty sure that Bowdoin’s dining services is in-house, not outsourced. They win awards for their food, and the students tend to agree. I’m also pretty sure that most buffet-style dining halls have unlimited availability at the salad bar, and it’s impossible to judge the varieties of cheese based on an online menu. Bryn Mawr, for example, definitely has better deli offerings like aged cheeses and fresh bread (not rolls) every day. Moreover, the Sharples menu available online does not list ice cream or frozen yogurt, nor the contents of the salad bar.

      I agree with your point and I fully oppose outsourcing dining services, but don’t overstate the comparison with peer schools. There are also peer liberal arts colleges with in-house dining services who manage to provide better-quality food (although none of them are in this immediate geographic region, which of course affects costs).

  18. What would this discussion look like if Swarthmore were a school that had an established relationship with an outsourcing company, and we were considering going on our own? All practical concerns aside, I’m pretty sure we’d be emotionally attracted to the thought of an independent dining service that we directly control ourselves and are more closely bound to our institution.

    While I don’t believe that student services should be weighted heavily at all, two of my favorite details about Swarthmore are the fact that both our bookstore and dining services are independent. In an age of corporatization of higher education, that we maintain a degree of autonomy in this matter should be something to take pride in.

    As far as practical considerations are concerned, I agree with Eugenia et al. in that Sharples isn’t that bad, and I agree with Anna and others in that the responsiveness to new/changing student desires is best met by an organization that caters only to Swarthmore, not a larger corporation.

  19. Adam, you include a lot of economic theory in this opinion piece, but your description of how wonderfully idealistic outsourcing dining services would be comes across as a sales pitch detached from reality.

    For example, you wrote “Outsourcing our food service would have the benefit of creating more of an incentive to be responsive to students’ wants and needs.” But why do you think that a company from outside of our community would be more responsive to student preferences? The management at Sharples is extremely responsive to suggestions. For a reality check, I’d suggest you pay a visit to Widener University, which outsources their dining services to a private company. There are definitely ways to improve the quality of Sharples, but I would encourage you to think more creatively than jump to outsourcing as the only solution.

    The bigger issue, however, is how your article has made many Sharples staff members feel. Many of them come to work every day and work extremely hard to make students happy. They deserve our appreciation and respect, and your words have already upset and demoralized some staff members. Intentional or not, your words did harm.

    • Adam,

      Reading the end of your post really upsets me. I love the staff here at Swat and don’t like the thought of these sorts of DG discussions upsetting them. Is there any way we can convey the great amount of support their receiving from commenters (and from what I assume is most of the rest of campus). There seems to be too much division on this campus as it is, I’d hate for there to be even more.

  20. I don’t like the idea of outsourcing primarily for quality reasons (although there are SOME good food service vendors) but I’m so confused by this idea that eating at sharples is a “privilege” we should cherish? It’s an economic exchange, actually. I pay money (and just because mom and dad or grandma/pa might be paying for your meal plan doesn’t mean it’s free) to eat there, and if I do not like the service or the food, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say something about it. I would do this in a restaurant as well. So I wish we could have this discussion without the sort of guilt-tripping side conversation about how spoiled Swatties are for complaining about a service they pay for – because we could decide not to pay for the meal plan, but this would require removing ourselves from a largely residential campus and it’s not really fair to ask that.

    Sharples also seems “selectively” receptive, so let’s not get too excited about their willingness to listen. Things like “can we have more split pea soup” get listened to because those are not institutional changes. For some reason there is pretty much never any serious consideration to questions regarding issues like hours/meal usage/etc. They’re always “logistically difficult” (this is the wording I see a lot). I would have so much more respect for Dining Services’ management if they brought substantive problems to the table in a constructive way, but they rarely do.

  21. When I looked for more information on this topic, I somehow ended up on collegeprowler. The students who post there are completely self-selected, of course, but many of the rankings make sense. For instance, Swarthmore scores very highly (A- to A+) in areas such as academics, on-campus housing, diversity and facilities. It does not score so well (C) in areas such as dining, off-campus dining, and nightlife. Why is that? Have there been on-campus surveys that would provide more-reliable information? I also came across a Feb. 23, 2012 article in The Phoenix on this same topic. The conclusion seemed wise: “A dining hall with longer hours, unlimited swipes and more varied food options could serve as more than a dining hall, but also as a study and community center that removes food as a source of stress in students’ lives and introduces it as a way to recharge and relax.”

  22. I’ve worked for several years now at a family-run farm selling to individual buyers no more than forty-five minutes away from the farm itself. It is craaaazy local and is like catnip to locavores the world over. They don’t even sell to tiny restaurants, let alone large food corporations.

    My point is that the morally laudable version of buying local is about a lot more than forking over the money for a delicious product–it’s about building relationships between individuals. If there’s any non-local company involved, you’re doing it wrong.

  23. I’m sure many of universities are caught in crunch of trying to offer food for the larger variety of students. As I have seen with my daughter when touring these campuses it’s a daunting task and mind numbing to offer good quality food and meet the requirements of students who come from all over the world.

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