Story | The Octant Team
Photos | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
The Octant would like to thank two guest reporters who contributed substantially to the investigation but requested anonymity. Their identities have been independently verified.
Update 17 August, 3.16pm: we have received the Student Affairs Office’s response that they had been independently aware of the similarity and had been working with NUS and Smorgasbord, the caterer, to rectify the issue. More details can be found under the section “Caterer Responsive to Feedback: Student Affairs Office”.
Dining Halls open to NUS College and Yale-NUS College served visually identical meals to their students over at least two days, The Octant has found.
On 14 and 16 August, reporters compared meal offerings across breakfast and dinner at the four dining halls allocated to NUSC and Yale-NUS and found no identifiable difference among the fifteen items on offer. This is despite a higher residential cost charged to Yale-NUS students and repeated reassurances from Yale-NUS officials that the College has a significantly higher food expenditure.
No Significant Difference in Items Served
At breakfast service on 14 August, both the Cinnamon Wing and the Cendana College dining halls served fifteen items, according to menus available on the NUS Dining app. The items served for each set meal are substantially similar, barring minor variations in names and appearing on the menu apps in different orders.
|#01 Potato Wedges
#02 Chicken Ham Frittata (HC)
#03 Roasted Root Vegetables (HC)
|#1 Potato Wedges
#2 Chicken Ham Frittaha (sic)
#3 Roasted Roots Vegetables (HC)
|#04 Mee Tai Mak Soup
#05 Minced Chicken and Fish Ball
#06 Chinese Spinach (HC)
|#14 Mee Tai Mak Soup
#4 Minced Chicken and Fish Ball
#5 China Spinach
|#07 Mee Tai Mak Soup
#08 Mock Fish Slice
#09 Chinese Spinach (HC)
|#15 Mee Tai Mak Soup
#6 Mock Fish Slice
#7 China Spinach
|#10 Nasi Lemak with Condiments
#11 Sambal Boiled Eggs
#12 Chicken Drumlets (HC)
|#8 Nasi Lemak with Condiments
#9 Sambhal Boiled Eggs Spicy Eggs
#10 Chicken Drumlets (HC)
|#13 Nasi Lemak with Condiments
#14 Mock Chicken Dal
#15 Zucchini Aloo Jeera (HC)
|#11 Coconut Rice
#12 Mock Chicken Dhal Indian Mock Chicken Lentil Curry
#13 Zucchini Aloo Jeera Spiced Zucchini and Potatoes
The Western set meals served were also visually identical.
Fig. 3. W Set Meals at Cinnamon (left) and Cendana (right) dining halls.
NUS College dining menus were not reflected on the mobile app at dinner service on 15 and 16 August. However, according to signs displayed in the Dining Halls, the full menus were again substantially similar at dinner on 16 August between Saga and Elm, which are allocated to NUSC and Yale-NUS respectively but share a common kitchen. The only differences lie in the categorization of different dishes under different meals.
Indian Prawn Masala
Lady Finger with Tomato
|This option is not offered. Similar dishes are found under the “Malay” set.
|Hong Kong Steamed Fish
Stir-fried Chye Sim
Sauteed Napa Cabbage
Hong Kong Steamed Fish (HC)
Herbal Chicken (HC)
|Cauliflower/Capsicum Stir Fry
Stir fried Chye Sim
Stir-fried Napa Cabbage
|Sauteed Napa Cabbage
Stir Fry Chye Sim (HC)
Stir Fried Broccoli
Steamed Rice (White/Brown)
Variety and Quality Used to Explain Higher Costs
Prior to the adoption of the new catering contract, Yale-NUS administrators promised higher quality and more variety in the meals served to justify higher costs despite having the same caterer as the NUS Residential Colleges.
In the email first announcing the dining arrangement on 31 March, former Vice President (Student Affairs) Dave Stanfield wrote that “the Yale-NUS dining menu will remain distinct from the other UTown RCs with an emphasis on quality and variety.” This was concurred by Acting Dean of Students Cory Owen on 10 August in a college-wide email.
“I want to reassure you that your meals will not be the same as the rest of campus. The budget that we’ve allocated for each of your meals is much more than the average meal cost for NUS students, and as such, you should expect a higher quality dining experience,” Dr Owen wrote.
Yale-NUS charges students $4525 for the upcoming semester prior to financial aid. This is $292 higher than NUS College residential fees of $172 a week for 18 weeks and dining fees of about $1137 charged to its students on the Yale-NUS campus, according to a Straits Times article documenting a NUS-wide fee increase.
The College also subsidizes student meals considerably. In 2019, Executive Vice President of Administration Kristen Lynas spoke at a College-wide town hall that students were only charged 40% of the total cost of meals available.
We do not yet know if the subsidy has increased or if Yale-NUS is affected by meal plan price hikes across other NUS residential locations, which can be as high as 40%. Students will not be given bills higher than that in their year of admission under the College’s fee policies.
Student Sentiments and Complaints Regarding Changes
On August 14, students began flooding the “YNC help! I need…” chat with more concerns about the dining hall meal and the meal plan itself. Previously, it had garnered a similar buzz after Dr Owen and Serene Tam (Cendana College Manager)’s emails regarding the details of the new dining hall plan.
Alongside numerous other complaints, many students have noticed the similarity between the meals at Yale-NUS (Elm and Cendana) and NUSC (Saga and Cinnamon).
In the aforementioned groupchat, Amogh N. Agarwal (Class of ‘24) had sent, “Hi folks…it also seems to me that elm food might be the same as NUSC food in saga.…” Other students echoed this idea for later meals, like Jenelle Lee (Class of ‘24) who quickly added that, “also saw that dinner for elm and saga looked pretty much if not exactly the same…isn’t nusc supposed to be on a diff meal plan.”
NUS, Caterer Responsive to Feedback: Student Affairs Office
Dr Owen told The Octant that the SAO had been independently aware of the issue at the start of the week and had been communicating with NUS and Smorgasbord, the caterer.
“We became aware of this on Monday night and a member of our team reached out to NUS immediately,” wrote Dr Owen in an email responding to Octant queries, “NUS has been highly responsive and quickly provided us with a response and plan of action to improve the dining experience for us.”
When asked to elaborate on funding differences, Dr Owen said that Yale-NUS and NUS College operate on different billing models “due to differences in our curriculum, campus life, and amenities. The dining model at YNC is also different because we provide lunches and pay our food vendors a higher rate to ensure that quality food and service is provided.”
She attributed Smorgasbord’s errors to unfamiliarity as the new caterer adjusts to operating within a new college. “As discussed during the Town Hall, each new vendor needs a bit of time to acclimate to their roles and Smorgasbord has been using our feedback to change the menu to better meet our needs,” she wrote, “I am pleased that we have been seeing positive adjustments every time feedback has been shared.”
Town Hall attendees were told they could see improvements reflected by the end of Instructional Week 4, and Owen said the SAO would continue to liaise with Smorgasbord and NUS according to feedback.
“We will continue to push for more changes in the dining hall to reflect the quality of food expected, if quality and service levels do consistently fall below our expectations, we will consider making changes to the contract,” she wrote.