SGA hosts Town Hall to discuss the future of Dining Services

BY LIZ LEWIS ’22

The final Senate meeting of the fall semester began with cheerful chatter and cookies, and quickly moved into a discussion with dining staff representatives Mike Helm, Chris Kostek and Richard Perna. Helm is a chef from the Cochary Pub & Kitchen, Kostek is a chef from the Classics section of the Dining Commons and Perna is the Director of Dining Services.

Perna began the meeting with an overview of the past year for the dining staff. In 2018, Dining Services closed and decommissioned all residential dining locations and opened the Dining Commons, Grab ’n Go and the Cochary Pub & Kitchen with entirely new menus focused on healthy eating. Perna noted that the Halal, Sushi and Wok stations were all brand new to the staff and that, amid the changes, the staff had also transitioned into new jobs once in January and again in September. Dining Services also opened the Library Cafe mid-semester, signed on to become Green Restaurant Certified, hired a food systems manager in January (a first for Mount Holyoke) and increased local food expenditure from seven percent to 13 percent.

A brief overview of goals for the near future followed, including a break over winter session, a full review of all menu items, discussion of next steps in measuring pre- and post-consumer waste, applying for the Kendall Grant (around $250,000 awarded to college dining systems) and increasing local spending to at least 20 percent by the year 2020.

The dining staff representatives then opened up the floor for questions, which students could either ask personally or submit anonymously via a forum. Throughout the night, questions ranged from lighthearted quips such as, “Who’s been choosing the music lately? It’s really good!” to more serious concerns.

Environmental sustainability dominated the conversation throughout the evening. From each representative’s point of view, the College’s dining system has made great strides in sustainability in the past year, including the shift to centralized dining. For example, there are no garbage cans in the dining hall — instead, as much as possible goes through the Dining Commons’ disher, in which food is sorted, ground and dehydrated. By the end of the process, waste typically shrinks in volume by up to 90 percent, making the system both sustainable and spatially efficient. The utensils at the Kosher station are all compostable and go through this process as well.

A food commissary also opened this past year, serving as an offsite warehouse where food is prepared for the cooks to use. Perna mentioned that the commissary presents an opportunity to utilize some of the food waste inherent in the preparation process, such as “[the peels of] carrots [and] potatoes … a lot of which goes directly into compost. Now we can utilize some of the baker’s equipment when the bakers aren’t there to make things like broths…[or] stocks.”

There are still places in Dining Services where potentially removable waste is presently unavoidable. Food identification cards are one example — they are printed separately with each serving for the sake of nutritional accuracy and safety. But students can expect to see some changes in the coming months. Paper straws, for example, will be making their way into the dining system as soon as the current plastic ones run out of stock. Grab ’n Go sandwiches will soon be wrapped in paper instead of plastic. The representatives also provided an update on the loss of utensils and plates. Many are already being returned and Perna said, “we thank you for that.”

Student concerns included the massive daily rushes around lunchtime, limited options for students with dietary restrictions and a lack of authenticity in recipes from various cultures. While no set solutions exist yet, all representatives agreed that these areas need attention and said that they are actively searching for them.

Regarding lunch rushes, the goal is to expand upon Grab ’n Go to accommodate the issue, with more long-term plans also in the works. Numerous students also inquired about the possibility of to-go containers in the Dining Commons. Perna said that it’s unlikely, as the absence of takeout allows Dining Services to do far more with that space itself, such as an unlimited meal plan and long dining hours. However, to him, these options are always “worth looking into.”

Perna was extremely receptive to student ideas, constantly asking for specifics and taking notes. He expressed clearly that in any problem, there is always room to improvise, adapt and troubleshoot. He also noted that specificity is extremely helpful in feedback. For example, if students are looking for authenticity in the form of “a specific flair, specific flavor, [or] specific dish,” the staff will find it easier to incorporate these suggestions into the menu.

According to Perna, students can expect to see some experimentation in Dining over the next few years. For example, staff is toying with the idea of occasionally using the omelet station as a pasta station of similar style. Sushi may be expanded to also make spring rolls in the future, and as always, new recipes will be added periodically.

The shift to centralized dining has affected the entire staff in several ways. As Helm put it, “any major change will be stressful for people, especially since so much of our staff has been here for decades … [but] things are calmed down and I think things have ... stabilized since the big change.” Kostek agreed, adding, “scheduling is a lot better for us now ... we can have lives outside of here now, which we really couldn’t before.”

To non-student-workers, the world within the College’s Dining Services can seem quite unfamiliar. When asked to share something they wished people knew about dining, Perna responded, “there isn’t one dining associate who doesn’t work very hard.” Kostek, who has been a chef at Mount Holyoke for over two decades, added, “we have a lot of pride in what we do… and we want to put a smile on your face and make sure that you guys are getting taken care of.”

In terms of student requests, Perna says that the staff is always on “a bit of a seesaw” as it’s impossible to please everyone. This has been a tumultuous year for the entire staff, who are all “doing the best [they] can with what [they] have.” However, all representatives made it clear that feedback is always encouraged. “After all,” Perna told the crowd of students, “at the end of the day you really do drive the program.”

Senate will continue hosting weekly meetings next semester. The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 29, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. in the Blanchard Great Room.

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