Each fall, students return to school and are forced to abandon their parents’ home-cooked meals for those provided by the school cafeteria. From elementary school to high school, this was often a dreaded idea, but it was easily remedied with a sandwich made from home, something to drink that was grabbed from the fridge just before class and maybe a few other items.
At Dulany cafeteria, the staff works from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. to provide nearly 1,000 meals a day. After interviewing Mark Althaus, general manager of Dining Services, and Stephen Bay, director of the Cafeteria and Campus Food Service at Columbia College, it is clear that Dulany operates much like any other business, with much consideration given to what the customers – the students – want and expect out of a meal.
“Changes to the menu are an ongoing process,” Althaus said. Menu planning requires careful balancing of a series of issues: the school’s requirements for entrées provided, the amount of money they can spend, and the demand for healthy (and often unhealthy food). “Vegetarian foods are often requested by students,” he said, and they provide at least one vegetarian entrée each meal in addition to other items at the pasta bar. The demand for vegetarian foods has even led them to hiring a vegetarian cook. In addition, other healthy foods are often requested by students, but Althaus said when given the choice between healthier grilled chicken and fried chicken, students often choose fried. The result: Many healthy foods often go uneaten and are thrown out.
“Reading a comment card two hours after the meal has ended telling me the milk was empty doesn’t allow me to fix the situation,” Althaus said.
Althaus said one of the biggest difficulties facing Dulany is communication with students. Though he estimates that half of all feedback is positive, with another 30 percent being suggestions for food items, the remaining 20 percent is often complaints he cannot remedy. Many of these involve complaints such as the milk or soda machines being out. “Reading a comment card two hours after the meal has ended telling me the milk was empty doesn’t allow me to fix the situation,” Althaus said. He says the best solution to a problem like this is for the student to tell someone working immediately, so that the problem can be fixed on the spot.
Photos by Robert Schmidt