On-campus dining controversy: Instagram account rallies for change

Throughout the initial days of the winter semester, a lot has happened on Oakland University’s campus. Around Jan. 20, new Instagram profile @OUStarves caught students’ attention. 

“Hearing so many of our peers complain about their on-campus dining experience, we realized OU wasn’t eating, and instead, OU was starving,” anonymous @OUStarves administrators said. 

From humorous images to real photos submitted by students, the account reports on the campus’ food quality and culinary services. The administrators explained their goal is to help highlight student experiences so the administration and Chartwells cannot ignore complaints.

“We pay tons of money for on-campus dining, and frankly, it’s not our job to fix it,” @OUStarves administrators said. “We are the consumer, not the producer.”

The account gathered around 300 followers within a week of its debut, and has been receiving positive feedback from the student body in the form of followers, direct messages and engagement with their content.

According to the profile administrators, the ultimate moment that contributed to the account creation was a day in which options for dinner were so limited that broccoli was the best available — and was still partly burnt.   

“While it wasn’t terrible, it was really demoralizing when it’s the only thing you have on your plate — besides grilled cheese you had to make yourself, and a tomato,” @OUStarves administrators said. “It’s insufferable.”

The Instagram account is the result of problems students have pointed to for a while. 

According to @OUStarves administrators and interviewed students, OU’s administration should address the following issues:

  • Dining hall hours — Halls close before classes on campus end.
  • Hillcrest Hall hours — Hillcrest is closed three days a week, and students are paying extra money to be in that dorm.
  • Food quality — Students are requesting food maintenance over weekends, and @OUStarves believes there should be student representation when Chartwells conducts quality taste testing.
  • Menu — Food options present limited inclusivity, few options for students with allergies and few healthy alternatives.
  • Meal swipes: Swipes expires every semester, even if students have put money toward unused swipes.
  • Golden Grizzlies pantry: The pantry is in need of more support and donations besides those made once or twice a year.
  • Customer service: Chartwells seems understaffed, and students feel disrespected.
  • Cleanliness: @OUStarves said there have been tons of rumors and even graphic evidence of unhygienic conditions concerning food served to students.
  • Cost of dining halls: The cost for commuters to dine in the halls is currently $16.00.

“I took out loans to afford to live on campus, and now I’m starving while having a meal plan,” an @OUStarves administrator said. 

Oak View Hall resident assistant Josh Kobus believes the guest swipe process is nice, but needs improvement, and that the number of swipes should not be limited with the semester swipe count. Many students have swipes left at the end of the year, which do not stack, and say it feels like a waste of money.

“There are so many restrictions on the swipes, it’s pretty painful — especially with how much meal plans cost,” Kobus said.

Senior student Sophie Techentin added that Oakland University requires meal plans for students in the dorms. 

“I’ve priced out how many meal swipes you get per semester — it is actually impossible to go through all of your swipes,” Techentin said. “They recently changed this to let you swipe more than once per meal period, but given what they have been serving, I do not think it is worth it.”  

For Techentin, the food quality is usually okay. Freshman Maggie Quinn also said her overall dining experience has been generally unproblematic, aside from a few inconsistencies. However, both highlight specific bad occurrences related to the food preparation. 

“One time, I found plastic wrap in my mac and cheese,” Techentin said. “Mold in the eggs? Sure. Chicken that wasn’t cooked all the way, that made me incredibly sick? Check.”

“There have been a few times where I’ve noticed items that have been undercooked or raw, or end up being completely unappetizing,” Quinn said.

Aside from quality, Quinn highlighted how these unappetizing conditions can lead students not to eat at all. 

Fellow student D’Zariah Hopkins echoed these concerns, pointing to another aspect of the food issue: accessibility. She says she must walk from Hillcrest to Vandenberg three times a day in order to eat three meals on the weekend. With the current weather conditions, she feels it is unfair to have to walk so far while paying more than Vandenberg students. 

“I know of a number of students without vehicles who don’t eat sometimes because of this issue,” Hopkins said. “I also know some students don’t have funds to access food outside of what’s provided on campus.”

A solution she proposes is opening Hillcrest on Friday and alternate weekend days, like the university had done last year.

One of the things @OUStarves features on its profile — besides the usual memes and visuals of food — is a petition, which the administrators did not create. The petition, whose creator is unknown, currently sits at 118 signatures, and is fairly broad in its demands.

The petition touches on the aforementioned concerns, but also discusses topics like unsalted sidewalks, raw sewage and mold in the pipes — though it mainly focuses on requesting an improved dining experience.

@OUStarves feels Chartwells has built a monopoly on campus. 

“Currently, Oakland University lacks a free market — anywhere you get food on campus is more than likely controlled by Chartwells,” @OUStarves administrators said. “The other large problem comes from Chartwells’ leadership, who we feel have been negligent in the day-to-day operations of campus dining.”

Chartwells is aware of both the account and concerns from students, and said they encourage students to share feedback through means such as email, a texting line called Text 2 Chat, online forms, kiosks found in the dining halls and by stopping at their office to speak to a manager on duty.

“Our team is always looking for ways to improve the student dining experience,” Evol Gazzarato, resident district manager for OUEats, said. “Student feedback is an important element of our dining program, and we tailor our menus and events based on the feedback we hear.”

“In addition, we just finished conducting our annual student engagement survey,” she added. “Those results are being analyzed now, and we are looking for opportunities to make changes based on the results.”

Gazzarato said there are several factors which may be contributing to recent concerns, such as a nation-wide labor shortage and lower enrollment causing less participation in the dining program. Another occasional factor is supply chain shortages, which force Chartwells to make substitutions for certain foods. 

One of the biggest consequences of this was the shortening of hours for Hillcrest, which Chartwells works in conjunction with OU to control, as it forced Chartwells to “re-evaluate the services offered” for OU students.

“All decisions are being made to best balance services and fiscal responsibility,” Gazzarato said. “An increase in students participating in the meal plans would provide the ability to expand services on campus.”

With everything going on, Oakland University Student Council (OUSC) provided a public comment on their Instagram account. The statement acknowledged the student concerns regarding dining quality, hours, cost and other matters.

“We have been in contact with Student Congress who have been listening to our feedback and understanding of our grievances,” @OUStarves administrators said.

OUSC President Andrew Romano said the account is successful in bringing complaints together to a collective space, as well as in bringing the issues to the attention of administration, Chartwells and the media.

“In the past, there was the Student Workers Coalition, which used a social media presence to raise awareness in order to pressure housing [to] reverse job cuts in housing, and it was successful,” Romano said, “so it is a strategy that can be effective.”

OUSC encouraged students to engage with Chartwells to discuss their experiences, as well as urging Chartwells to respond and converse with students. At this time, OUSC is determining how to move forward in holding Chartwells/OUEats accountable.

“We are monitoring the changes that have already been made, and will not hesitate to apply our own tactics of pressure as needed to ensure students are taken care of,” Romano said.

There are signs some measures are already being taken to address concerns. Golden Grizzlies Pantry Manager Bella Levitt said Chartwells put donation bins around campus in response to their need for snacks. She said the pantry was grateful for the gesture, but that the move may be a “bandaid on a larger issue.”

A possible solution other universities are using, such as Wayne State, is the option to donate meal swipes to students in need through pantry services. This may be a solution used by the university, but there is confusion behind it.

“I was surprised to see Chartwells post about allowing students to donate their meal swipes in February, because they never contacted us about this,” Levitt said.

The @OUStarves administrators demonstrated concern with the lack of involvement of the university administration in the matter.

“The problem stems from a lack of accountability and competition, which is exemplified by the failure of the administration to protect their students from the horrors we’ve faced at the mercy of this on-campus monopoly,” they said.

The account administrator said some departments and Chartwells directors view their social media content regularly, despite not following them.

“The account helps with bringing attention to the problem, to the point it becomes uncomfortable to continue to ignore it,” they said. “If OU fixed their food problems, then the account would no longer exist. It’s really their move.”