Dozens of students gathered in front of a panel of dining administrators at the Revelle Formal Lounge for the Housing Dining Hospitality (HDH) Open Forum on March 7, with many expressing anger towards the lack of communication and action taken in addressing student concerns.
“I hear what you’re saying… That’s why we’re here. We came to learn from you, we came to hear from you, and we are always listening even though it doesn’t always seem like it,” HDH Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives Russell King said in response to a student’s frustration over the lack of student input in HDH policies.
Answers like this were common throughout the open forum, with students often chuckling in disbelief. Even after the event, there seemed to be a sense of uncertainty and doubt regarding whether HDH would respond to these concerns and make actual changes. HDH hosted the forum with the goal of giving students the opportunity to “interact with HDH management, express concerns, suggest policy changes, and be heard,” after many comments on the Facebook page “UCSD Memes for Sleep Deprived Tritons” criticized and highlighted problems, like raw chicken in dining halls and broken or exploding laundry machines.
The HDH panel was composed of Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives Russell King, Food Service Manager Lisa Joy, Senior Food Service Manager Alex Wiley, Sixty-Four North Manager Kim McErlain, and 64 Degrees Manager Matt Seiler.
Several of the students’ complaints were summarized in a list of demands brought up by Damin Curtis, Director of Food for the Student Sustainability Collective. The student demands asked HDH to make dining plans optional rather than mandatory, lower university market prices to be comparable to other grocery stores, offer cheaper and healthier foods, inform students of all contracts and budgets, and create a Student Oversight Committee with decision-making power. The demands also called HDH a “private corporation with a monopoly over students’ living conditions,” which is partially untrue: HDH is not a private corporation; it is a department and HDH Director Mark Cunningham is an Associate Vice Chancellor.
Cunningham was brought up a few times during the forum, with students asking about his candid and unpopular dialogue with students, as well as his pay, which increased from $174,366.68 in 2011 to $234,905 in 2016. In response to the comment about Cunningham’s salary, King said, “I have no idea why he got a pay increase. I honestly don’t.”
Coca-Cola’s exclusive contract with HDH was another topic brought up multiple times. In one instance, Curtis asked the panel whether they thought it was permissible for the administration to sign contracts that affect students without their input, such as the Coca-Cola contract. King answered the question by saying, “Certainly we would want to be very mindful of everything you all want. I don’t know if you want to be involved in every contract that we sign or negotiate.” Students responded with a resounding “We do.” King and Joy both then said that they could bring this up with the procurement team, but they also quickly changed the subject by asking to hear other concerns.
Students called for environment-friendly changes to be made to dining halls, such as using reusable dishes rather than single-use plastics, and planning dish-washing stations to reach and prepare for the no-waste goal by 2020.
Although many of the students’ questions and concerns were redirected, King and Joy, who responded to all the questions and comments, did directly answer some of the students’ concerns. For example, when the topic of unhealthy foods came up, Joy responded by explaining a “purchasing manifesto” HDH was implementing, which has strict minimums on the amount of plant-based foods in dining halls and switches HDH from using hydrogenated oils and fats to using rice-based oils.
At other times, Joy and King agreed with students that foods with high-fat content, such as carne asada tortas at Pines, which has 87 percent of the recommended daily value of fat, should not be available. They took notes on specific cases, like laundry problems, as well as one student’s case for lowering the prices of certain items in markets, like Claritin. Joy also mentioned that HDH has organized small focus groups in the past to get student input.
Full details about the comments made and questions posed during the forum can be found in the meeting minutes. HDH has yet to announce if or when there will be another student-focused town hall.
“I felt disappointed that much of the concerns students were voicing were being dodged or haven’t been considered prior to the forum,” said Warren College Senator Paul Martinez. “HDH [representatives have] been very aware of all of these issues and concerns, but as evident by their responses…[they] don’t have a plan to address the needs of students.”
Cynthia Leung is a staff writer at The Triton.