Issues with Dining Dominate Town Hall Discussion
story | Dion Ho, Senior Writer
photo | Jolene Lum
The Town Hall held on March 11th saw intense discussion regarding the state of dining on campus. Issues discussed included the police report dining provider Sodexo filed against a student, food safety in the dining halls and the feasibility of an “opt-out’ option from Yale-NUS’ meal plans. The Town Hall was held in the Tan Chin Tuan Lecture Ttheatre and attended by over 50 students and various members of the Yale-NUS administration. Although a Facebook post made by the Student Government stated that “Sodexo will be joining [the Town Hall]”, no representative from Sodexo was present.
To preserve the Town Hall as a space where students feel comfortable expressing their opinions, we have anonymised the students who spoke up.
The Student Government announced on March 6th that Sodexo, Yale-NUS’ dining provider, had filed a police report in response to posters that had gone up in the dining hall on the grounds of potential libel and defamation. The posters contained the statement ‘I am not eating in the dining halls because I am afraid I will get diarrhea. I want an opt out option’.
Dean of Students Robert Wessling stated that it is the administration’s understanding that this police investigation will soon be put on pause, if not outright abandoned. He said that the administration has been working with Sodexo to create a more amicable environment where students are not castigated for expressing their opinions. According to Mr. Wessling, no police have been on campus.
Near the end of the Town Hall, a student called for the administration to make a statement that they will protect the right of all students to express their opinions on campus.
Currently, all Yale-NUS students are required to have a meal plan that covers breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining halls. Many students at the town hall expressed the desire for alternative options. Students with dietary restrictions expressed unhappiness at paying for food that does not meet their needs. They stated that an “opt-out” option, where they would not pay for dining and receive no meal taps, would expand their food opinions without adding financial stress. Some students, however, raised concerns about the implications of an opt-out option for students who are on financial aid.
President Tan Tai Yong spoke at length on both a full and partial opt-out scheme. He said that either opt-out scheme will have significant cultural and economic impacts on Yale-NUS. Culturally, Mr. Tan said that an opt-out scheme will diminish the residential experience ideal that Yale-NUS was founded upon.
“If we take out meal plans altogether, we are suggesting this college can function as a school with a dormitory”, he said.
Economically, Mr. Tan said that Yale-NUS will have less negotiating power with dining vendors since vendors want to be guaranteed a certain amount of business. Kristen Lynas, Executive Vice President of the Administration, said that the College only pays for 70% of the total meal taps available and that students are further subsidised such that they only pay 40% of the full cost of the meals available.
“If we reduce the number of meals, the cost will have to go up per meal”, said Ms. Lynas.
Nonetheless, the administration acknowledged student dissatisfaction and stated that they will look into improving the dining hall experience and cater to students with different needs. “Clearly, a number of people aren’t having a satisfactory experience and that is an issue”, said Ms. Lynas.
An opt-out option remains a possibility. “If vegan or vegetarian options cannot be provided, we will have the conversation about opt-out”, said Mr. Tan. Mr. Tan also called for more research about opt-out options, which according to Mr. Wessling, would take about 6 months.
Sodexo’s Accountability and Relationship with Yale-NUS
Multiple questions were raised regarding Yale-NUS’ relationship with Sodexo and Sodexo’s accountability to students. The following are some notable questions and answers, edited for brevity and clarity:
Are the food vendors incentivised to listen to students given that they have already secured the contract?
Ms. Lynas: Based on the contract, the food vendors are paid per tap and not given a flat fee. Therefore, they have every incentive to provide good food.
What is the duration of our contract with Sodexo?
Ms. Lynas: Yale-NUS has a two-plus-one year contract with Sodexo, meaning that Sodexo will be our food vendor for two years and we can extend their service for another year.
What action was taken in the wake of the multiple complaints of discomfort after consuming dining hall food? Why was Sodexo lax in conducting student interviews in the wake of the complaints?
Ms. Lynas: When there was a real possibility of a food safety issue the International Sodexo branch sent a team to conduct an audit. The audit was accompanied by Yale-NUS’ Office of Safety, Health and Environment (OSHE) representatives and the findings were reported to Yale-NUS’ Infrastructure, Safety, & Security Department (Infra). In addition, Mr Dennis Aw, Director of Infra, is trained in food safety and he conducts periodic food safety checks. Such checks focus on testing temperatures and other data points [instead of student interviews]. The audit did not indicate any problems.
In response to senior administrators stating that major changes like an opt-out option would take time to research, students questioned what could be done in the short-term to ameliorate their dining problems.
Paul Gallagher, Assistant Dean of Saga College, said that a good option is to connect with the dining committee, especially regarding vegan diets. He encouraged vegan students to provide “a wishlist of vegan food” for the dining hall committee to bring up with Sodexo.
“The response can and should be quick. Menu changes can happen in one week probably, or up to 10 days”, said Mr. Gallagher.
A student responded that they, together with other students, had met with Richard Ellison, Sodexo’s Human Resources Manager, with specific food requests but their requests had not been fulfilled. In response, Mr. Gallagher encouraged students to continue pushing Sodexo and to have confidence in the dining hall committee.
“I do not think we have pushed Sodexo as hard as we can about these changes. I think now they will be quite receptive to that”, he said.
Mr. Gallagher also responded to student complaints that Sodexo has been mislabelling food items and allergens. He said: “labelling is something the dining committee has raised with Sodexo a couple times in the past and it sounds like it needs to be raised again. […] If the communication is not clear from Sodexo, Assistant Deans can give a push or flag that we need detailed information on this”.
Before the discussion of dining on campus began, the Town Hall started with a statement from the students of the Divest Movement. They called for the National University of Singapore (NUS) to commit to institutional climate action and divest investments out of the fossil fuel industry into environmentally-responsible companies. They announced that their petition achieved 700 signatures, including 300 Yale-NUS students and 30 Yale-NUS student organisations. The petition was submitted to Mr Tan Tai Yong, President of Yale-NUS College.
After the Town Hall concluded, many students remained to converse with senior administrators. In the wake of the Town Hall, a Yale-NUS student made a Facebook post to call for a student-only meeting, stating “I attended the Town Hall today and [was] left with more questions than answers. I am unsatisfied with the responses we got, and I [feel] that my peers [want] to continue the conversation on dining options, quality, and Yale-NUS values”.