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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Campus

The end of an Aramark: A presidency comes full circle


“Surround yourself with smart people that will help accomplish a shared goal,” said Shane Smith, former SGA president, regarding students working toward similarly large changes. “Always be respectful, but never be patient.” | Marialuisa Rincon/The Cougar

For former Student Government Association President Shane Smith and members of his executive cabinet, the impending termination of the University of Houston’s food services contract with Aramark represents more than the fulfillment of the “Better Food” part of their party’s platform.

As a freshman, Smith presented to the Food Service Advisory Committee about the high price per meal for residential students. He left feeling that students were being dealt an unjust hand and no one was stepping in to stop it. Now that the contract will end, Smith feels his quest to improve dining services has come full circle — and that his 18-year-old self would be in awe.

“He’d be excited as hell,” Smith said.

On March 10, the University posted a Request For Proposals regarding dining services. The current contract with Aramark will be terminated in the summer — nearly five years before its expiration.

“We were not in a good contract,” said Dean Suchy, the former SGA director of research. “One of the terms they keep on using is that the contract didn’t have enough ‘teeth.’ It wasn’t able to properly force Aramark to do what they should be doing for the students.”

As chair of the Food Services Advisory Committee his junior year, Smith requested data on how students were using their meal plans. Following his appointment to Smith’s cabinet a year later, Suchy evaluated this data to determine whether bulk meal plans were financially benefiting students.

The goal, Suchy said, was to see if a residential student saved money at the dining halls in comparison to a student paying out of pocket but eating the same number of meals. Suchy said his results indicated otherwise.

Unless the residential student used nearly all of their swipes over the course of a semester, spending nearly 135 of the lowest-offered 160 plan, the student without the meal plan came out financially on top.

When faced with a situation in which students are not using meal plans they are often required to purchase, Suchy said, the University essentially had two options: increase the quality of the food so more students are willing to buy it or offer smaller meal plans that better meet student habits.

The University chose the former, Suchy said, by electing to terminating the current contract in favor of signing one that ensures food quality and ideally encourages more students to eat at the dining halls.

Seeking ‘teeth’

Nearing the beginning of the fall semester — months after winning the election with 58.6 percent of the total vote — Smith filed a request to view the existing contract between Aramark and the University.

The current problems with dining services, Smith said, stem from the contract between Aramark and UH being vague in many areas and failing to provide a way to enforce quality standards on the provided food and services.

“It wasn’t just Aramark,” Suchy said. “It was a lack of the administration having a contract with a service provider that provided the correct things to stop them from doing bad stuff like this.”

Smith said that students are not only losing out as a result of the current agreement, but Auxiliary Services, the department that oversees dining, is losing an estimated $1 million per year on a program designed to be self-sustaining. On the other hand, Smith said, Aramark receives an estimated $3 million per year in revenue from unused student swipes.

“I know that sounds bad, but that’s how they make their money — is by this unused swipe count,” Suchy said. “We’re just trying to lower it so it’s not this bad.”

Though Aramark replaced its on-campus leadership this year, Smith said the situation with the current contract was past the point of repair.

“It all came together where the University was actively losing money, the situation with the operator had been stagnant for a long time with little improvement and the students were significantly unhappy and had been applying that pressure for years,” Smith said.

Former SGA Chief of Staff Robert Comer said the University is seeking to ensure long-term quality in its next dining agreement by stipulating how student satisfaction will be ensured — a feature missing from the current contract.

Dining, Comer said, is a vital part of campus culture at UH, and he believes the current program plays a part in discouraging students from living on campus. The value of housing is already high, he said.

“If you don’t see the value in a meal plan, then you see this one lump sum that you have to pay and it seems like an unnecessary burden,” Comer said. “You go, ‘Well, I could probably feed myself for cheaper and it would taste better, so I should just stay off campus and spend that money I would spend on food on a nicer apartment.”

The purpose of terminating the contract in favor of a revamped dining program, Suchy said, was not to oust Aramark from campus. In signing an agreement with more “teeth,” Suchy said the University is trying to avoid another situation in which there are not adequate protections outlined to safeguard quality food and service.

Maintaining affordability

Suchy, Smith and Comer will remain involved in the reform to ensure that the proposed higher food quality does not come at the cost of low-income students being able to afford on-campus living.

Excited for the termination of a contract that was not benefiting the University or the students but uncertain about the future of the program, the trio maintain that they are “cautiously optimistic.”

“At the time in which we heard that the contract was being terminated, there was other news regarding what they were planning on doing with the contract that we strongly did not agree with,” Suchy said. “So it was kind of like a, ‘Yes, but what the hell are you doing?’ type thing.”

UH hired Porter Khouw Consulting to evaluate the dining program earlier this year. Though it was their recommendation that led to the decision to terminate the contract, Suchy said the firm didn’t take the price students were willing and able to pay into consideration before determining that students were interested in more expensive meal plans.

The proposed improvements, boasting features such as 24-hour operation and enhanced accommodations, received a positive response from students in the survey conducted by PKC. However, a later survey from SGA found that many students were not willing to trade affordable options for the new amenities.

Maintaining affordability has since been the focus of SGA’s involvement in the reform, Suchy said.

“We don’t want price to ever be something that turns someone away from having the living on campus experience,” Suchy said. “The 150 meal plan will still be there — it will actually be a lot better.”

‘A personal crusade’

Smith first became involved with UH’s Food Service Advisory Committee after comparing the cost per meal paid by commuters and residential students at the dining halls and realizing students living in the residence halls were paying significantly more than others to eat on campus.

“So I went to FSAC and I presented as a freshman. I had handouts and everything — it was really over the top — and they said, ‘Well, thank you for bringing this to our attention. We’ll look into it,'” Smith said. “I came to learn over the years that that’s the phrase they give you when they have no intention of doing anything about anything.”

Smith said food was ultimately the deciding factor to run for SGA president as a senior.

“Very few people will remember SGA; even fewer will remember me. They’ll never know anything about the four years that I rallied about this all the time,” Smith said. “But being able to feel like I’ve made a difference will help me know that the thing that I went through — taking this job, for one thing — which isn’t always fun, will have been worth it.”

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