UIndy Dining quality, safety questioned by students, supply shortages from COVID could be to blame

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The University of Indianapolis’ dining services have been  criticized by students on the UIndy App in recent weeks. Some of this has been attributed to a post from UIndy Uncut, an Instagram account not affiliated with the university and run by senior political science major Nick Means. The post showed a chicken sandwich that Means claimed had been served to a student with raw chicken in it. Means also posted the picture on the UIndy App. Since both posts were shared on Sept. 14, conversation on the UIndy App regarding the university’s dining services’ quality has increased, with many more students also sharing photos and posts on the subject.

Dining services did acknowledge the concerns regarding food safety involving the raw chicken sandwich, which Executive Chef Darren Lewis said he investigated himself. General Manager Amy Dugan said that on Sept. 15 Lewis spoke with the student who posted the picture of the raw chicken sandwich. Lewis said he then spent two nights working in Streets Grill, one of the fast-food dining options on campus, from 4 p.m. until midnight, running the register and talking to students. He said he did not receive any negativity from students on those days and was not sure where the claims about food quality were coming from. A health inspector came in about the report of raw chicken being served, Lewis said.

“So the health inspector came in [and] visited about the raw chicken. What happened was [that] we were short-staffed that evening and somebody that hasn’t been trained on the grill was cooking,” Lewis said. “So again, I
could have made two decisions: I could have shut the Streets down, and no one got fed, or we run [Streets] with what we had.”

Dugan said that UIndy Dining utilized that experience and feedback from students, adding that it was incredibly helpful to reassess and retrain the employee and that they were able to redirect the employee to a position more suited to their skill level.

“I think that, overall, receiving the information was really helpful to us because any information from the student population—good, bad or indifferent—is going to be beneficial to our operation, regardless,” Dugan said. “It was good that we had the information. We definitely addressed it very quickly. We were able to pinpoint when it happened, what shift, which employee was involved, so that we were able to train effectively [and] make good decisions from an operation standpoint. And I think that recovering from that and making certain that we did the retraining and stuck to all of our sanitation procedures and all of that was really important.”

Means, who runs UIndy Uncut, said that the account is a large platform that he thinks students check more than other accounts related to the university. He said that students were concerned about issues related to dining and knew if they sent concerns to him they would get posted.

“ … And it would be more likely that more students would see it and be more likely to speak up and say something,” Means said. “So I just do it just because I believe that I can use my platform to help the school.”

Since the food safety issue was brought up in September, Means said that he has received more pictures from students of food they have issues with. He said one of those included a grilled cheese sandwich that looked like it was not grilled all the way because the cheese was not melted. In response, Dugan said she was not made aware of any complaint regarding the grilled cheese sandwich. She said that dining services are always happy to remedy any issues on site, so if an instance where the grilled cheese was not to someone’s liking occurred, dining services would be happy to fix that immediately.

Graphic by Jazlyn Gomez & Lindsey Wormuth

Senior communication major Max Ramirez said he believes the food services have declined and said that may have a lot to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said before COVID-19, and even during some of the pandemic, the breakfast in the morning offered by dining services had well-prepared food, such as bacon, sausage, eggs and biscuits and gravy. After June, Ramirez claimed, the food quality decreased exponentially. He said in regards to breakfast, he believes the eggs may have been powdered. He said that lunches are also fairly bad.

Dugan said that the eggs used by dining services are not powdered. Because of dining services’ food philosophy, they are not permitted to use powdered eggs and only use a certain level of cage-free eggs within their operation. 

The dining hall stayed open after the pandemic initially started in order to feed international students and continued to stay open since the lockdown was lifted and campus reopened, according to Lewis. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis said, there have been supply chain shortages nationwide, as well as a shortage of staff because people were receiving unemployment benefits when businesses closed. Dugan said that dining services were never in a position where they did not need to be at work. She said dining services were able to work throughout the pandemic because there was always a community on campus. Dugan said that the changes can be broken down into two categories: supply chain issues and staffing.

“Those are two big changes we’ve experienced across really all lines of business, obviously, retail, residential, university-related foodservice environment…. Yes, we’ve experienced a lot of changes, a lot of them related to either staffing or supply chain issues.”

UIndy Dining has been attempting to provide the same level of service as it did before the pandemic, Dugan said, but that is just not a reality right now. Dining services has about 40% of its product line, while other weeks it is about 60%, and cannot order products that have been with their operations previously, according to Dugan.

“I think that we want to meet the demands of the students first and foremost,” Dugan said. “And I know there are a lot of things that our population would love to see that we are just not able to get our hands on right now. But I do know that our vendors are working through supply chain issues and really working hard to get us those things. And collectively, I think week by week and day by day, we are opening up, [and] we’re able to get more things….”

Dining services is working with its vendors but cannot get certain products because of its food philosophy in place, Dugan said. This means meeting certain standards and certain percentages of local items.

“So it’s really a balance,” Dugan said. “And I think that that’s kind of what we’re targeting right now is being able to meet the demand of what we want to give to everyone [and] what you deserve, and then matching that to what we are able to obtain from our suppliers right now. So I think that’s essentially what we are doing on a day-to-day [basis].”

Lewis said that cooking methods have not changed, and the menu has been simplified with the products that dining services are able to get without having to worry about those products not arriving. The food quality and quantity can be misrepresented in two ways, Lewis said, and he does not feel the quality has suffered with fewer choices.

“So I can do one of two things: I can up the quality to here [a higher level], and you might get that once a week and not seven days a week,” Lewis said. “Or I can bring not the quality [but] the choices of what’s on the menu down to this [lower] level, so that you get the same quality seven days a week.”

Ramirez has posted his concerns with dining on the UIndy App, which is not something he does often, he said. Ramirez said that he was in the military service, and the food there was bad, so he never complained about the food at the university and was wondering what other students were complaining about. He said once the food in UIndy Dining started to drop below the low and inedible standard in his mind, that is when he began posting about it. Ramirez claimed that the waffles would have a chemical aftertaste and ended up having to throw his food away.

“I had it, I left my breakfast, and just went and tossed it, and I’m a student that pays; I don’t have a meal plan,” Ramirez said. “So when I go to the cafeteria, it’s because I actually choose to go, not because I’m in a captive audience, like people who pay for the meal plan. So for me, I was throwing actual money away.”

Dugan said the waffle mix is provided by Heartland Waffles, and the waffles are made in old-fashioned waffle makers. Students make the waffles themselves, so they are fresh, and there are no chemicals involved in the process at all, Dugan said. There is a nonstick, all-natural spray that is provided at all stations, to be used when students prepare waffles, according to Dugan. All products used at the waffle station are accessible and can be seen at all hours of the operation, she said.

Lewis said that there were also reports of social media posts that students had gotten food poisoning from chicken tenders and some may have been served raw at Streets Grill. Lewis said that the chicken tenders that dining services receive are fully cooked when they arrive, so there is no way they could have been raw. Dugan said that perception is something dining services find valid and that dining services want to address every concern that comes across to them. She said concerns are addressed individually, sometimes through email or in person and she thinks that it is good for a student to come talk to dining services.

“ … We show them research, and we go through it together. Everybody leaves more educated, us and them,” Dugan said. “So I think that it was a good opportunity, too, and sometimes perception is just as important as reality because it’s really … it’s something that can be spread throughout the community. And anytime that we have a student that feels like something is undercooked, we want to address it right now, whether it’s true or not.”

Dugan said that dining services have found the most success with concerns being reported to dining services’ website, because it provides the email addresses of those working in dining services. She said her email address, Lewis’ email address and Director of Operations Derek Palmer’s email address all can be found on the website. Dining services also have Facebook and Instagram pages that can be accessed to contact them. Dugan also said that students can come talk to them in person.

UIndy used to have a Food Committee composed of students who met with dining services, Lewis said. However, when the pandemic started, the committee was shut down, according to Dugan, but with a population back on campus, UIndy Dining is open to reinstating the committee.

“And that way, now you’ve got another channel of communication …” Lewis said. “Because we … need to satisfy our students. We don’t need to satisfy ourselves; that’s not relevant.”

Means said that dining services is trying its best, and he does not blame anyone, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. After his initial post, Means said, he spoke to Lewis about concerns with dining services and was told that the raw chicken was served after an employee was working on the grill who should not have been. Means said that those things can be fixed by talking with staff and conveying that sending food like that to students can cause food poisoning or salmonella.

“I feel like the UIndy dining operations, they do the best with what they can. I know they’re understaffed, just like everywhere else,” Means said.

Ramirez said that customer service is excellent, and when students need something, dining services try its best to do it, even with limited resources. He said that management has been transparent in at least trying to address and acknowledge problems. Ramirez also said that dining services stayed open, even with limited resources.

“In my mind, that’s the best thing they did was, even with limited resources and problems, they stayed open to try to serve the clientele the best that they could do,” Ramirez said.

Means said that even after talking to dining services, he still plans to post about students’ dining concerns. In regard to meeting with Lewis, Means said that he felt the blame was being put on whoever was cooking the food. He said that he put in his notes, which were posted to UIndy Uncut, that the meeting was productive and that he was brought back into the kitchen and was shown some of the issues dining services were dealing with on that day. Means said that many people working right now will understand staffing and supply shortages and that if dining services were more up front with students, that might relieve some tension that students are having with dining services.

“… I just want to keep students aware of what’s going on … I told them, my main thing to the chef was that the school needs to do better, like the dining services especially should be reaching out to students over the UIndy App,” Means said. “Maybe posting about some of their issues that they’re having and just being up front … about it and giving students the opportunity to just make their own decisions ….”

Ramirez, who has worked in the food service industry in the past, said it is a very hard and demanding job with no reward. While there have been significant problems with UIndy Dining, he said, dining services are doing the best they can.

“But this is most likely an operator problem. And that even though they share responsibility in it, then maybe they can’t control what’s happening,” Ramirez said. “So I would at least say that … it’s a thankless job, but I thank them for at least being there and doing it.”

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