THE INDEPENDENT
The Hidden Cost

The Hidden Cost

Story by: Matthew Claeson and Zara Tucker

Friday, May 24, 2024 | Number of views (352)

Fort Lewis College announced on Apr. 9 that Fresh Ideas will be taking over Fort Lewis College’s food service and dining contract, a place that has been filled by Sodexo for the past 15 years. This article takes a look into Sodexo’s food service system for students. 

Skycards and Meal Swipes

When it comes to skycards here at Fort Lewis College, they are a student’s lifeline. Whether it is to pay for laundry, buy a meal at the dining hall or Animas Perks, or to get into your building after a late night of studying. All students living on campus without direct access to a kitchen are required to pay for a meal plan, an additional connection to their Skycards. With this, students can either choose 19 meal swipes per week, 14 meal swipes per week, or 10 meal swipes per week. With these plans, come allotted dining dollars that are dependent on the plan you choose at the beginning of the semester.

However, when these numbers are broken down, not all meal swipes appear to be equal. When the semester-long meal plans have dining dollars subtracted and are divided by the number of weeks within the semester, and the allotted meal swipes per week, there is around a $4 discrepancy per swipe among these plans. 

 

San Juan Dining Hall 

19 Meals per Week Plan

14 Meals per Week Plan

10 Meals per Week Plan

$10 per meal swipe

$12 per meal swipe

$14 per meal swipe

 

When we calculated this breakdown, the numbers above are what we came up with. So what does this mean? 

If you’re on the 19 meal per week plan, you’re spending the equivalent of $10 every time you swipe into the dining hall, if you’re on the 14 meal per week plan, you’re spending the equivalent of $12 when you swipe into the dining hall, and if you’re on the 10 meal per week plan, you’re spending $14 every time you use a meal swipe. Our main question once we did this math was “Why is there a price discrepancy within these plans?”

These swipes' prices are mutually agreed upon by Fort Lewis College, and Sodexo, the current food provider at the school finishing up on its 15-year contract this spring. In search of answers for why the meals are priced the way they are, we met with Amber Grenhart, the director of the Student Union and event services, including the management of the day to day dining at FLC. Grenhart is a part of the team determining what the future of dining services will look like for FLC, however, due to how extensive dining services are, she didn’t have all the answers. 

“Actually I don’t know the full reason behind the price discrepancy, the college does manage the meal plan prices, it’s mutually set between Sodexo and Fort Lewis.” Grenhart said. 

According to Grenhart, the price is set mutually between Sodexo and Fort Lewis College. 

“Sodexo will propose an amount and the college will say yes or no to it,” Grenhart added, explaining how with every pricing proposal and potential increase, the college is still involved. 

Grenhart further explained how the price of a meal swipe is dependent on how many meals a student is allotted each week, however this did not answer our question completely. We then reached out to Gina Rios, general manager of Sodexo at FLC, who could know the reasoning behind this. 

 “It’s complicated because you can do the math and say ‘here's the dollar amount’ but then you have to remember what that's paying for, which isn’t just the food,” Rios said. “It’s the food plus the people that do things with it, plus the equipment that they’re using for that, plus the dining room, which really includes this end of the building and the heating, air conditioning, and the operation of the building. The meal swipe is your dining room with a little emphasis on the room,” Rios explained.

What Rios is saying here is that not only does a student pay for their meals in total, to which there should be a specific dollar amount that can be pulled. There also seems to be an additional cost within students’ meal plan that covers infrastructure. Infrastructure includes the heating and air conditioning for the dining hall, The Rocket dining room, and the Animas Perks lounge, on top of those who work in any dining area on campus. A lot more is dependent on the meal swipe besides the meals, which was something we were not expecting to hear.

“It’s understanding that there is a whole lot that is being depended on for that money to cover.”



Students line up at the Melting Pot omlette bar in San Juan Dining.

Meal Swipe Substitutions

Another angle of this issue is how much these meal swipes are worth for substitution meals at Animas Perks or at The Rocket Grill. At Animas Perks, the meal substitutions consist of a bag of chips, a bottle of Pepsi product, and a sandwich or burrito (depending on the meal period). Stepping outside of Animas Perks and into Durango, we can find and compare the prices of these items to see how much of the dollar amount is actually going towards your meal swipe exchange.

 Adding these numbers up, based on Walmart’s prices of a 20 Oz. bottle of Dasani water (4 Oz. more than Perks allows for an exchange)  and a standard bag of Lays chips, they amount to around $3.67. If someone purchased these items from Perks, a bag of chips costs $1.79, and a Pepsi brand drink costs around $2.59. Adding the Perks price chips and drink, the total would be $4.38.

If we were to then add the typical price of a sandwich or burrito from Perks, approximately $4, then the total for the meal swipe exchange comes to $7.67 using the Walmart pricing of chips and drink, or around $8.38 accounting for Animas Perks’ pricing. 

It’s important to note that Walmart can be swapped with any location around Durango that sells snacks or food, like Albertsons, City Market or even a gas station. The purpose for comparison is to be able to come closer to the actual price for food that students pay per swipe on campus while also figuring out what else is included in the cost of a swipe that students might not know about.

These prices are below the 19 meals’ $10 evaluation of the value of a meal swipe, and even further under the 10 meals per week evaluation of $14. 

“When you use dining dollars, you stop paying for infrastructure, so that's why those swipes cost a little more, for the smaller meal plans are offered to maintain the infrastructure contribution of the building,” Rios explained.

Infrastructure is a common theme that kept popping up, leaving us confused, but after thinking about it, the pieces began to fit together. When a student uses their swipe at the dining hall, they are covering the cost of food, employees’ time and preparation, and the actual dining hall, including the heating and air conditioning within that end of the building. 

When one decides to exchange this swipe for a meal exchange at Animas Perks they are taking the meal with them, which in theory should remove the aspect of infrastructure, however a meal still needs to be prepared by employees in a kitchen, and a student still has to swipe their Skycard at a register, infrastructure is ongoing regardless of where you eat your meal.  If a student were to be discounted the costs of infrastructure, they would be incentivized to use a meal exchange rather than going to the dining hall since the meal would be cheaper overall. Due to this factor, a student still must cover the overhead price for infrastructure even though they decided to exchange their meal. This seems to make the swipe at the dining hall the best value exchange.

 

Rocket Grill

At the Rocket Grill, there are a limited number of items that can be purchased as replacements for a meal at the dining hall. The menu items up for exchange are the 3-piece tender meal, basic cheeseburger, caprese sandwich, and chicken caesar salad. These items are priced at around $8.50 on the menu. This is another discrepancy that we found, but after talking to Rios, she gave us a clear answer as to why this is. 

“At Rocket, we are looking at ‘what can the staff handle to be a part of that meal swipe?”

After further discussion with Rios, the amenities that the Rocket employees currently have would not meet the requirements needed in order to cook every item on the menu during a rush. With one flat top grill, one hood system, two fryolators, an air fryer for the flatbread pizzas, and a remote storage system (employees must go downstairs in order to get their stored foods), things in the kitchen can get hectic very quickly. 

This issue in the Rocket is a supply and demand issue due to the organization to get the job done more efficiently. If everything that cost the same amount of money were to be available for a meal swipe exchange, the kitchen might not be able to keep up with the demand from the students. Simply put, it’s not so much about the money or how much food the kitchen has, rather it is the capacity in which the kitchen can operate under. 

 

Sodexo and Fort Lewis

Another one of the topics within this issue revolved around the involvement of Sodexo themselves; when it comes to product selection for meal exchanges, dining hall choices each day, and anything else food related, Sodexo has a voice in making these decisions.

As Fort Lewis’s 15 year contract with Sodexo comes to an end, the college looks at other options due to lacking years of extension. In addition to Sodexo, the school has looked into two other options for food providers which could also be chosen, Fresh Ideas and Alladin.  

 “I think a lot of people assume we went up to bid because we were unhappy and dissatisfied with Sodexo, and that’s not the case,” said Grenhart. 

Fort Lewis has had a long standing relationship with Sodexo, Grenhart explained, and as the contract comes to an end, the college’s search for a potential new food provider isn’t out of a dislike for Sodexo, but out of responsibility to take stock of the options available. 

“It’s just great to see what else is out there that we can provide to the students,” Grenhart said. “Even though students rotate each year, you’re here for four years, you’re using the dining hall, so what new ideas, what innovative ideas, what different cultural food could we bring, and just kind of like, up the game with dining services, to see what companies can provide.” 

This change is large and has the potential to affect the lives of many students on campus as per the required meal plan for those who are housed on campus. Grenhart emphasized that this decision is not taken lightly. 

“We went out to bid to see how we can better serve students and the campus population.” Amber Grenhart said.

“Prior to releasing the RFP, myself and Jeff Dupont, and some others conducted brainstorming meetings with 15 different departments across campus of ‘what are your top things that you like, that you dislike, what are new things that you would like to see?” RFP stands for request for proposal. 

The Board of Trustees has been collecting input since last September, and have been working on narrowing the list and looking at options in depth. 

One of the ideas emphasized was a 24/7 market for next fall, because students are often studying up late, Grenhart notes.

 “I was a student here at Fort Lewis, I graduated from here, and I spent a lot of time in the Reed Library,” Grenhart laughs, mentioning the amount of food she used to bring in for her late-night study sessions. 

Another idea that stemmed from the discussion with Grenhart is the potential introduction of a name-brand food retailer into the Rocket Grill area. Regardless of the changes made, Grenhart emphasizes FLC’s dedication to adhering to the values of the campus community.

At the end of our reporting process we reached back out to Rios to see if we could get more of an explanation on some of our unanswered questions but she declined to comment further. 

So what does this mean moving forward for returning and incoming students? With new changes happening as you read this article, it is difficult to say what the future holds, but as of Apr. 9, Fresh Ideas has been officially chosen to partner with the school as the newest food provider. With details about the contract still unknown like any changes being made to pricing, food choices, or other dining options on campus, there will be more to come with the story of food service in the future.

 

Photos by: Zara Tucker

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