/Ole Miss, MSU meal plan prices skyrocket as contractor Aramark pays for new facilities

Ole Miss, MSU meal plan prices skyrocket as contractor Aramark pays for new facilities

Mississippi News Nonprofit The Labor of Food: On-campus dining at the University of Mississippi State University and Mississippi State University. The State of Campus Dining. The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) has been exploring the labor of food through films, podcasts and other media. To produce interconnected stories, the SFA collaborated closely with AL.com and the Montgomery Advertiser as well as the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today, and the Clarion Ledger. They shine light on campus dining at Auburn University and Mississippi State University. These are the largest public universities in Alabama or Mississippi. October 16, 2019 At $2,000 a semester for a meal plan, Mississippi State University students pay twice what they did about a decade ago for food. The Ole Miss dining costs have also risen by $500 in the past five years. Narika Glasper is a recent Ole Miss graduate who recalled the sticker shock. Her scholarships paid for housing and tuition but not food. She couldn’t afford a “unlimited” meal plan so she settled for one that provided 50 meals per semester. She discovered that her unutilized meal “swipes”, didn’t roll over. Glasper, 22, said that she was mad that that money was being wasted. Glasper, 22, said that she had to pay upfront and that it wasn’t used. So that money just went to Aramark, the Ole Miss food contractor. Rising meal plan prices in Ole Miss and Mississippi State contribute to rising college tuition costs. The main reason for rising costs is? Students pay more than food. Ole Miss and MSU are increasing revenue from student meal plans to Aramark, their dining contractor. Students are sometimes required to pay for meal plan subscriptions. Schools receive millions in bonuses and commissions in return. These funds are often used to build new facilities or add dining options. According to the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today, and dining contracts. Marissa Meyers, a researcher and practitioner with the Hope Center, which focuses on college costs, said that food service is one of the largest revenue streams for colleges. The “board” portion of college room and board costs usually includes food. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, college students pay an average of $4,600 per year for board costs. Mississippi is at $3,800 for public universities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and The Hechinger report, students pay significantly more for meals than they would if they cooked and ate on their own. The education-focused news outlet reported in 2017 that college and university dining contracts cost an average of $18.75 per day. Home dining costs less than $11. What is the process of dining contracts? Tom Mac Dermott is a college dining consultant. He said that schools often lose money on their in-house catering operations. So, they began to turn to one of three multinational corporations, Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group, to manage their restaurants, dining halls and catering. Officials at Mississippi State were losing money and decided to switch to Aramark’s 2007 operation, Regina Hyatt (vice president of student affairs), said that administrators wanted to provide more high-quality food choices. Ole Miss was also looking to shift from its assembly-line cafeteria style dining when it hired Aramark back in 1996. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today Report For America However, contractors soon ran out of ways to stand out on the service side when it came time to compete for university contracts, Mac Dermott stated. They began to offer more money to universities in the form commissions and bonuses. “Colleges and universities realized that money was readily available, so they grabbed it.” Aramark gave MSU a $5million bonus for signing a 10-year contract. It later paid $675,000 per year for unrestricted usage, according to its contract. MSU received at least a 12% annual commission in addition to these perks. The university also agreed to provide a minimum number of meals plans to Aramark each year. If it did not meet the minimum, it would pay Aramark any difference. According to the university’s chart, Ole Miss also received nearly $8 million in bonuses in 2014-2015 for upgrades to food facilities, including a “campus eating refresh”. Ole Miss delivered Aramark $117 million worth meal plans, cash operations and catering. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today Report For America Students pay the cost of these commissions and bonuses, Mac Dermott stated. Contractors must make a profit, and there is no other way to do so than to charge students more. Meyers stated that meal plans are more expensive than cooking at home and there are not easy ways to reduce meal plan costs. She said that dining contractors buy as little food as they can to ensure students don’t eat all of their meals in a week. Mac Dermott stated that the meals students want don’t have to cost much. They’re not only looking for healthier food but also for improvements in meal plans. The university administration feels that it should have a better dining hall to compete. As student meal prices rose, the dining experience on both campuses was transformed by Aramark. Scott Schornhorst (Aramark’s food service director at Ole Miss), said that Ole Miss now has a variety of branded restaurants as well as upscale dining hall options. There are now more than 20 restaurants with national brands like Chick-fil A and Starbucks. You can find vegan and vegetarian options as well as stations for students with gluten allergies. This spring, the newly renovated student union was opened. Similar developments were seen at MSU. MSU followed a similar path. It transformed Perry Cafeteria into a “marketplace-style” venue. “They expect to be able to choose the type of food they’re going (at home) to eat,” Hyatt said. Ten years ago, there weren’t any allergen-free options in the dining hall. But, “we’ve adjusted” to students’ demands. Hyatt said that students have high expectations about the quality of food they will receive. The cost for MSU’s “Ultimate” plan, which includes all students on campus, has gone up from $1,000 per semester in 2007 to $2,019 today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this far exceeds the cumulative rate of inflation over the same period of less than 25%. Hyatt stated that officials aren’t using rising prices to “pad the pocket” of the institution. She explained that most of the Aramark commissions are returned into a general scholarship fund as well as other funds that help improve campus facilities. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today. Report For America. Ole Miss’s freshman are automatically enrolled in the $1.985 “Rebel Unlimited Plus 1”. Kathy Tidwell (director of contractual services, licensing) stated that the university used the money from its Aramark contract to “reinvest in the facilities” and to fund the university’s day-to-day operations. Similar prices are reported by other Aramark-managed universities: The University of Southern Mississippi’s top plan costs $2,050. The University of Alabama’s most expensive plan costs nearly $2,000, an increase of $600 since 2012. Similar strategies have been used by other contractors to increase student food plan revenues. In 2013, SodexoMAGIC took over Jackson State University’s dining halls. The top meal plan cost students $1,447 back then. The same plan was now $1,979. In recent years, some universities have started charging students meals regardless of whether they are in need. Ole Miss charges $250 per semester in Flex Dollars to almost all undergraduates. Alabama also requires undergraduates to pay $350 each for the same “Dining Dollars” food plan. These mandatory plans have rising prices: Alabama’s contract for Aramark states that the university must obtain state approval to increase its Dining Dollars price tag $25 per year. How can campuses deal with student hunger when prices are higher? Swipe Out Hunger is a non-profit organization that addresses food insecurity on college campuses. Rachel Sumekh is the founder and CEO. This group partners with 86 universities, including Southern Miss. It allows students to swipe extra meals to give them to their hungry friends. Sumekh stated that college affordability is mainly due to rising living costs, including expensive meal plans, and not tuition prices. Pell Grants and other financial aid don’t always cover all student’s expenses. Instead of borrowing money, Sumekh suggested that students skip purchasing expensive meal plans and instead take out loans. Sumekh stated that Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today Report For America Universities should use grant and scholarship data better to identify hungry students and provide resources for them to eat in the dining rooms with their peers. Many universities have food pantries for students who are hungry. She said it’s not enough. Swipe Out Hunger is a group that raises awareness among universities and contractors about food insecurity. Hyatt stated that MSU also has an Aramark-based swipe donation program. Maroon Meals is also available on campus. Students are notified via their phones when additional food is available at campus events. She also said that officials are looking to open a food pantry. Tyshean Grant is a 2016 Ole Miss Graduate. She was among those students who couldn’t afford a full-priced meal plan in her first year. She said that she was forced to use Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits to cover her expenses. Grant stated that she understood what Grant was trying to accomplish by creating a better meal plan, such as combo-type options. “But I also believe the options should be accessible.” The low pay and long hours of campus food workers has not improved the working conditions for many students who are also food service employees. Mac Dermott stated that contractors hire food service workers at the lowest rate possible, with fringe benefits. Due to the shorter college calendar, most receive only 40 weeks of pay per year. He stated that unions have not made much progress. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today and Report For America Universities are able to negotiate good terms for their employees with the new contractor. According to the contract, employees were given a 5% pay raise, certain benefits, and guaranteed employment for at most one year after Aramark assumed control of MSU in 2007. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today Report For America While many former employees of Aramark praised their company’s benefits packages, some expressed concern about the company’s constant layoffs, unpredictable hours, and heavy workload. Joshua Taylor, 37, was a cook at Ole Miss Athletics for many years before he left earlier this year. According to Taylor, he worked an average of nine hours per day and earned $17 an hour plus benefits. He said that the job was too difficult after many of his coworkers were fired. They cut our whole operation in half, and they let go of half my coworkers. I was left …”. Eventually, there were “ten people doing the same job as about thirty. I’m 37. Brittiney Massey (30), echoed Taylor’s sentiments. “I’m not interested doing the work of three persons.” Layoffs during summer or winter breaks can negatively impact employees, she said. Massey stated that just because layoffs occur doesn’t mean expenses were stopped for that period. Massey was hired in 2012 and worked her way up to a supervisor in the banquet department. She felt unpaid during her tenure and was often overlooked by colleagues for promotions. In 2017, she left. She said that she was the banquet supervisor. I was paid $12 an hour but her hours would increase from 12 to 16 hours a day. Scornhorst, Ole Miss’ food service director, said that all positions are available online. He also explained that promotions are based on merit and skill. They are encouraged to return on the “predetermined date,” he said. He said that it was a “pause in the system” and not a hard shutdown. “We do have issues with retention when locations close down for up to two months at a stretch… people need to make money during those times.” These stories address questions such as worker compensation and benefits, university revenue models, the relationship between universities, Aramark, and the relationship between Aramark and corporate food service provider Aramark. Reporters from the project will present their findings at the Southern Foodways Symposium, which takes place on October 25th at the University of Mississippi. Contact Luke Ramseth at lramseth@gannett.com and Aallyah Wright at aallyah@mississippitoday.org.