Yale-NUS’ New Dining Concept: a band-aid over a bullet hole?

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Story | Lim Tian Jiao, Guest Writer

In an email on Oct. 23, 2020, Dean of Students Dave Stanfield informed Yale-NUS College’s students of the plans to explore a new dining model starting from Academic Year 2021/2022. As our current vendor’s dining contract expires, the Dean of Students Office (DOS) plans to move away from the school’s current all-you-can-eat buffet model, instead pursuing a “hybrid-buffet dining concept.”

Under the proposed concept, one dining hall meal tap will entitle students to one set meal (out of four cuisine options) with no refill option, as well as access to free-flow drinks, breads and salad. Students can also access one portion each of soup, fruit, and dessert. The set meals would not be pre-plated, allowing diners to request for a larger or smaller portion depending on their preference.

Café Agora will also likely be reinstated as the central collection point for Grab & Go options, allowing students to redeem a sandwich, a fruit option and a drink per tap.

The new dining concept is the product of “a year or so” of careful consultation between DOS staff and industry professionals, and it aims to ensure the “quality”, “quantity” and “nutritional completeness” of food served at every meal, said Muhammad Erfaan, Residential Housing Operations Executive, and Natalie Ang, Wellness Manager, both part of the DOS office at Yale-NUS. The duo co-lead Yale-NUS’ Dining Experience Team (DXT), which oversees the college’s three dining halls.

“Over the past semesters, we’ve seen numerous instances of feedback regarding inconsistencies in food quality and a host of other menu/dietary preference related issues,” Mr. Erfaan and Ms. Ang explained. “Through the set meal concept, we can expect that many of the concerns raised by the students and food industry experts to be met.”

Nicol Yong ‘23, a student associate for DXT, further elaborated on how the new system would improve food quality. “It is very hard to predict the amount of each dish that should be prepared. All 16 dishes (in a non-COVID semester) have to be available at all three dining halls throughout dining hours. Food has to be replenished within 10 minutes, meaning the vendor has to have trays of food ready to go out at each meal service. This is costly and produces a large amount of food wastage.”

“The new system provides F&B vendors with greater predictability when it comes to what and how much they should prepare, allowing them to focus more on the quality of the food.”

The hybrid concept could benefit students with dietary restrictions. “Under the current system, there have been many lapses in how nutritious a meal is for vegans and vegetarians/ Muslim students—students might not have enough protein options, or have too much carbohydrates in a single meal,” said Huang Huanyan ‘23, another DXT student associate. The dedicated Indian/Halal and vegetarian/vegan stations could help control this problem.

Looking forward, DXT is continuing to review student feedback on these proposed measures. “The proposed dining concept will continue to be tweaked and may evolve as we engage with the prospective vendors to understand their capabilities and specific proposals in the coming weeks and months. We really appreciate all of the supportive and constructive comments we’ve received so far, and hope to use the feedback to implement a suitable, renewed and revitalised dining experience for everyone!”

Student reaction to this new development has been mixed. While some were supportive, others had deeper concerns about the model.

“I’m actually quite optimistic about the change! The idea that a limited set of food would lead to better quality is quite intuitive. I predict that the caterers would waste less food in the long run, and so they’ll be able to focus their efforts on the quality of the food,” said Michael Sagna ‘23.

“This is the logical step for the administration to take after four years of consistent complaints about food quality—they’ve tried different cuisines, different dishes, different caterers, and so a different system is naturally the next step to take.”

This sentiment was shared by Afiya Dikshit ‘23 and Sewen Thy ‘23, who had both attended United World College (UWC) boarding high schools in Singapore which featured a Sodexo-run meal setup similar to the new proposed model. “It could definitely be worse. At UWC, we had a set meal system for lunch and a buffet for dinner. The lunch quality was considerably better, mainly because we had choices to change the cuisine style more often.”

However, some students with dietary restrictions raised concerns that the new system would restrict, rather than improve, their dining options.

“As a vegetarian, I’m glad that the college is pushing for more nutritious food options, but I’m worried that under the new system, this will come at a significant cost of options,” commented Tanya Sharma ‘23. “While non-vegetarians can still consider whether they would prefer to have Asian, Western, Indian, and so on, the vegetarians have no option but the couple of items given under the vegetarian section. If on a particular day, the main dish isn’t very good or something I’m not comfortable with—mock meat, for instance—I can’t simply avoid that. While I do really appreciate the school’s efforts in improving nutrition and quality, I wish this didn’t involve severely sacrificing choice of cuisine.”

Other students wondered if they would get their money’s worth from the pricey (and compulsory) meal plans.

“A set meal without the option for refills would objectively cost less than a buffet-style concept,” mused Ivan Leo ‘22. “As such, would our dining prices be justified under the new system?”

These criticisms come even with DOS’ explanation that the current buffet-style model is financially unfeasible for vendors. Ivan pointed out that SATS (the dining vendor prior to Sodexo) had been keen on renewing their contract with Yale-NUS in 2018. “Surely that points to the fact that our all-you-can-eat model could be profitable.” 

Beyond costs, students hope that the dining system—whatever form it takes—is able to assure quality. “Honestly, I’m fine with either dining system as it is, as long as vendors are able to consistently provide acceptable food,” said Thet Yin Zaw ‘23. “If costs are the issue, I’m personally okay with fewer but high-quality dishes.”

This translates to the larger issue of vendors’ accountability, an issue that students hope will be addressed regardless of dining concept. “I do understand the quality argument, but why do vendors need to constantly be reminded that they need to provide quality food?” asked Binderiya Oyunbaatar ‘23. “Our vendor seems to always begin the semester with a rocky start, only improving food offerings after numerous reminders from DXT and the students. Are there any repercussions when vendors don’t live up to the school’s specifications, and how will moving towards a new dining system help to enforce this?”

It remains to be seen if the new dining concept will be implemented as proposed. However, beyond the dining format itself, the issue of vendor accountability seems to be a perennial concern.

Heightened transparency between school administration and students—providing students with more clarity on vendors’ expenditures per meal, or instating a clear accountability process for vendors, for example—could go a long way in building mutual trust and understanding between students, vendors, and DOS. On students’ part, actively raising dining concerns through existing feedback channels could also provide the DXT team with valuable insights into key concerns on the ground.

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