Students and staff crowded into Harbach Theatre last Thursday night, filling a third of the auditorium, to discuss concerns about changes to dining services under Bon Apptit.
The event, organized by Student Senate’s Dining Services Committee, is the second of its kind and centered on a list of topics ranging from food labeling and work conditions to sustainability and code compliance. It was originally scheduled for the Round Room, but the committee decided to relocate the event due to the high number of attendees.
Junior Parker Adams, who experienced a serious allergic reaction a week prior in the cafeteria, got there early to voice their concerns about food labeling and cross-contamination.
“I’m hoping that students get to express their concerns and dissatisfactions and I would really appreciate a commitment from Bon ApptitÉto demonstrate change immediately,” they said.
The purpose of the forum, explained Dining Services Committee Chair junior Max Wallace, was to compile a list of student grievances and incorporate them into the committee’s evaluation of Bon Apptit, which currently holds a one-year contract with Knox. A third forum will be held near the beginning of Spring Term with Bon Apptit management present. The committee also meets weekly with the management to discuss student needs.
Labeling was discussed first after Senate compiled a list of general themes based on concerns raised by participants. Students with dietary restrictions ranging from celiac disease to severe coconut allergies spoke about the need for more thorough, accurate labeling. Others advocated education among the management on gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan and halal diets.
Several spoke about going to sleep hungry, unsure of what was safe to eat due to the minimized labeling system. One student mentioned seeing a chicken dish labeled as vegan.
A staff member suggested a “happy medium”: the ingredients lists they used to make for made-from-scratch options prior to Bon Apptit’s arrival.
But because different chefs cook new meals every day now, students have not been able to get definitive answers from staff on what is safe to eat.
Transitioning to work conditions, participants voiced numerous complaints on subjects ranging from an alleged order notifying staff and student workers not to speak about non-work related matters during their shifts to comments from the new management urging workers to ignore student concerns.
Stricter sick leave policies and the banning of bathroom breaks for two- or three-hour shifts were also called out by student workers.
General Manager Diane Welker did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, Jan. 27.
“It feels like Bon Apptit looks at us and sees dollar signs,” freshman Njoh Malafa said during the forum. “We need people who care about what they’re feeding us.”
Some student workers described the changed environment under Bon Apptit as a tense workplace and expressed concern for the staff members, whom they consider to be family.
Labor was cited as a major issue, too. Despite hiring more student workers and bringing on temporary staff, Bon Apptit’s made-from-scratch model requires more experienced staff than the college has hired, according to current staff and student workers. Some estimated that the workload has tripled under the company.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” said Rudy Martinez, who has worked as a cook for the past seven years. “We don’t have enough employees to carry out the Bon Apptit standards.”
To complicate matters, student workers reported being moved around to different stations daily, regardless of training.
At a few points, the forum got heated, with students arguing with several staff members about the veracity of some of their claims and a recent Buzzfeed article chronicling food and work conditions in the cafeteria.
The committee members reminded the audience that this was a public conversation, not an argument. Several students thanked the staff for showing up and sharing.
Sue Swanson, a dining services staff member, told TKS before the event that she hoped students would receive answers to their questions but felt apprehensive about the direction the discussion might take.
“I don’t like the negativity and it’s bringing lots of people down,” she said. “We want to work as a team and try to bring [the transition to Bon Apptit] off so that it works because there has to be change.”
The forum wrapped up with a brief discussion on possible price increases and students’ sustainability concerns under the new system.
Several groups of students stayed to chat amongst themselves or with senate members after the two-hour event. Senior Nicole Hunter was one of them.
“I think that it’s actually ridiculous that we have to have a forum like this that’s so well-attended for an issue as minimal as food because it should just be a given,” she said. “I feel like students are finally becoming aware of most of the issues and through our own ways, we’ll make change.”