By Shanée Simhoni – Staff Writer – [email protected]
UNC Asheville’s dining services aim to offer students a variety of meal options at a competitive price, with mixed reactions from students.
“Our meal plan, for the variety of foods expected from students – vegan, vegetarian, organic, local, gluten-free options along with traditional foods – is actually a pretty good value,” said Nancy Yeager, the director of planning and assessment for student affairs.
Many factors contribute to whether or not a meal plan is more economical than buying and making one’s own food, including food choices, transportation and preparation, according to Yeager.
“Some students choose to live off campus because they think the meal plan is too expensive, and then end up spending more money once they add up all of the costs,” Yeager said. “They find out it takes more time than they want to spend with their busy academic and often work schedules.”
Chloe Gagin, a sophomore at UNCA, said saving money on food is her biggest incentive for moving off campus next year.
“The food services here are overpriced for the quality provided,” Gagin said. “I’ve heard other students complain about often settling for cereal or pizza for dinner and definitely not receiving the meal for which they paid.”
Although UNCA’s meal plan prices are relatively comparable to other schools in the UNC system, the cost of food for a 19- to 50-year-old male, if spending liberally, is about $360 a month, according to the U.S.D.A.’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. UNCA’s meal plan is about $1,600 a semester, or $462 a month, according to UNCA’s cashier office.
“The meal plan fees cover more than just the cost of Chartwells to purchase food. We also pay them to prepare and serve food, labor costs, plates, utensils, cups, et cetera and clean everything, including the kitchen and all serving areas,” said Yeager, the university liaison between Chartwells, the dining contractor, and UNCA. “The university also has to pay for utilities, fire insurance, maintenance, equipment repairs, furniture repairs and replacements as needed, et cetera, all associated with dining services.”
When being thrifty with one’s meal choices, the average female ages 19 to 50 spends about $160 a month, according to the U.S.D.A.’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, or about $300 less than the monthly cost for a meal plan.
“Chartwells is always ready to accommodate any gaps discovered within campus dining operations. We have processes in place that allow us to identify concerns so we can quickly satisfy those needs that are brought to our attention,” said Emily Williams, Chartwells’ senior director for dining services. “Chartwells brings award-winning programs and initiatives to campus, as well as the support of food and nutrition experts.”
Compared to other schools in the UNC system, UNCA lacks many on-campus options for national brands of restaurants and dining locations. UNC Wilmington has Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway on its campus, UNC Chapel Hill has Wendy’s and UNC Charlotte has Chick-Fil-A, Wendy’s, Bojangles and Au Bon Pain, according to various university dining services.
“As a direct response to information from a student survey, we worked with our dining contractor to bring Rosetta’s Kitchenette on campus in the Wellness Cafe. Students have also responded extremely favorably to the national brands we do have on campus, such as Salsaritas and Starbucks,” Yeager said.
UNCA’s students have strong interests in bringing local foods and businesses to campus, as well as some national brands as well, according to Yeager.
“I’ve eaten at UNC Chapel Hill, University of Georgia, Duke University, Appalachian State University and UNC School of the Arts,” Gagin said. “When I attended U.N.C.S.A., we had lows in food quality during the slower parts of the year, but when the university received guests, which happened to be quite often, the dining hall delivered excellence.”
UNCA does not have those peaks in quality, according to Gagin. “The dining hall consistently provides mediocrity,” the East Bend native said.
“Most of the responses that I’ve heard have been positive,” said Tania Gayle, a Chartwells employee at UNCA. “I’ve heard that maybe they would like more of a variety with their meal plans, maybe different meal plan options or possibly restructuring it.”
All levels of the dining staff at UNCA work very hard to keep food fresh and locations clean, according to Gayle, a Chartwells employee since last summer.
“They’re selective about what they send out,” Gayle said. “We’ve ordered pizzas from Pizza Hut and cut them fresh. So we get the pizzas in, pull them out of the box from Pizza Hut and cut them into pizza bites. I’ve actually prepared and packaged those myself.”
Gagin, who was eating primarily on campus, said she became sick earlier this semester after eating in the dining hall.
“About two weeks ago, before a slew of exams, I came down with food poisoning,” Gagin said. “I know two other people who found themselves kneeling at the pearly throne at the exact same hour.”
Gagin’s bout of food poisoning, which completely drained her of fluids and energy, rendered her unable to complete papers and exams on time while she recovered, Gagin said.
“I’m bitter, because as I student I should not fear for my safety and academic well-being when I eat a meal on campus,” Gagin said. “It’s unfair to blame the dining hall. They didn’t intentionally give anyone food poisoning. They likely unknowingly purchased a contaminated ingredient.”
Chartwells and UNCA work together to try to educate students on healthy eating, and provide them with an excellent dining experience, Yeager said.
“I think the service is good and friendly, but the food is lacking in many ways, most of the time,” said Joseph Natale, a sophomore at UNCA. “The Wellness Cafe is the best, but their hours suck.”
Natale said he loved the food at Appalachian State University when he visited. He said the options at Highsmith and the Wellness Cafe are good, but the dining hall can use improvement.
“We work with our dining contractor to try to educate students on healthy food choices, where their food comes from, portion control and also introduce them to new tastes and foods they may not have enjoyed before,” Yeager said. “We are a very demanding client, and we expect our contractor to partner with us to meet our students’ varying needs as well as our university goals around sustainability and health and wellness.”