(opinions) Dining Services staffing shortages

Students line up for food at Burger 37 on Wednesday September 14th, 2016.

The majority of students will raise their hands when asked if they ran out of money on their dining plan before winter break, and that’s completely expected. College students need to eat, and lasting the whole semester balancing 10-14 meals a week is hard. 

However, if you’ve checked your email notifications from the university this past semester, you would’ve seen the notice that the dining plan costs will increase next semester to accommodate the amount of student workers and their increased hourly charge: an additional $100 for the Minor Flex, $187 for the Major Flex, $201 for the Mega Flex and $215 for the Premium Flex per semester.

In the notice, Virginia Tech explained that “the increase was necessitated by workforce shortage issues which the university addressed with a market alignment for rates of pay necessary to attract and retain Dining Services workers needed to maintain current operations and service quality.” 

Though many students will feel frustrated by this decision, as they’ll have to pay more money for the same amount of food, it was the best choice out of a pool of difficult options for the university to take. 

To provide more insight, Mark Owczarski, who is the co-author of this notice piece and the Associate Vice President for University Relations at Virginia Tech, had more to say. He first brought light to auxiliary functions in the university and how they can be funded.  

“When you pay tuition, you’re paying only for faculty, instruction, putting the lights on in classrooms, labs, equipment, facilities — all that stuff that speaks directly to your education. Everything else comes through an auxiliary function, so you pay tuition, and you pay room and board, because room provides you with where you live and the board provides you with your meal plan,” Owczarski said. “They set those rates back in March based on projections made in January and February, and so as an auxiliary function, you can’t turn a profit; nor can you balance your budget by taking money from other sources. That’s state law. That is something that every public in Virginia has to work around, so athletics, parking, dining, bookstore — everything that’s auxiliary, or secondary to your teaching and learning — has to support itself, and if it can’t, you have to charge what you are costing, and that’s why there’s a mid semester adjustment: because there was such a traumatic change in the wages needed to staff dining service’s staff across the university to provide a level of service you expect to receive.”

Owczarski furthered his statement to identify an alternate way Virginia Tech could have funded the wage increase without costing students.

“One way you could have done it is not increase the cost, but close a dining hall or two,” Owczarski said. “And what would that have done? It would have made lines longer. It would’ve made service less. It would’ve provided restrictions for other students. So we felt (increasing the cost) was the smartest and the best thing to do to maintain that high level of service, be able to hire the staff members, and provide the quality of food that students deserve and expect when they’re paying for a dining plan.” 

The university can’t fund the increase in wages through an outside grant or dipping into other university funds, since the dining services are an auxiliary function that need to provide for themselves. Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that the rise in dining plan costs will have negative effects on students, whether they live on campus or not. Kyle Wallace, a senior triple-majoring in sports media analytics, psychology and statistics who lives off campus, voiced his thoughts.

“They’re limiting hours to go to dining halls, limiting options on menus and are keeping the same amount of money to spend on plans but still making the plans more expensive,” Wallace said.

The reduced dining hours and menu options may already negatively impact food security by giving students fewer times to work around their schedules and less food options to choose from. Now, to make matters worse, the increases in plan prices make the meals more expensive as well. 

For students living on-campus, where buying a plan is required (without the option of the Minor Flex plan, which is only for off-campus residents), the increase in the price of plans doesn't mean there will be extra money to spend per plan. Instead, it means more will be paid for the same plans. 

Jack Davis, a freshman majoring in general engineering, voiced his opinion on the subject. 

“The food (in the dining halls) is pretty good, but with the (dining plan) prices increasing when I already have to add money to my plan to eat three meals a day, it’s frustrating,” Davis said.

In 2019, a study done by the university showed that 29% of undergraduates and 35% of graduate students at Virginia Tech are classified as having “low or very low food security”; this is defined as having “reduced quality, variety, and desirability” by the USDA Economic Research Service, which means student have less choices of food that appeal to them and have good quality attributes. This is about one-third of all students at Tech.

That’s why the Virginia Tech Food Security Task Force was created: to serve as an “innovative approach to fighting hunger.” The task force released a report in March 2021 underscoring some of the barriers preventing a resolution to the issue of food insecurity at Virginia Tech, such as a lack of awareness, and provided recommendations for how to overcome them. These include creating a center for food security, providing quicker ways for students to get food, such as a grab-and-go option, and conducting another study to examine whether the steps were effectively implemented. 

Some of these changes that the Task Force recommended have been implemented — such as the ‘grab-and-go’ option in some dining facilities — and Virginia Tech’s notice stated, “Students do not need to file a Cost of Attendance Appeal because of the increase. University Scholarships and Financial Aid is currently addressing the spring dining plan increase automatically in a student’s Cost of Attendance.” However, it should be acknowledged that the decision to increase the cost for dining plans may negatively impact food security for students. 

Even though the decision to charge students more was the best choice out of many difficult options, it will have some negative consequences. 

After the 2022 spring semester, it would be prudent for the school to host another survey of students to find any effects of the increase on them. A survey could show the school what the majority of the student body would prefer to happen — whether they’d prefer to close a dining hall or increase dining plan prices. Including students in the process would create an easier decision-making process for the school in the future. Decisions would also be easier for students to accept, since we would be part of a community that listened to our voices.

The university had to make a very difficult decision about dining services, and in the end, this has a high potential to negatively impact food-insecure students. In the future, Virginia Tech needs to thoroughly survey students on major decisions like these to ensure both the University and students' needs are considered and met in the finest way.

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