Would You Feed This to Your Kids?
LOWELL -- Andrew Finerty was somewhat joking when he mentioned to his friends a couple weeks ago that he was going to start a petition about how bad the food is at UMass Lowell.
But the 19-year-old sophomore criminal justice major quickly found that discontent with what students feel is slipping quality of food at the university’s dining halls is widespread. His friends strongly encouraged him to follow through with starting the change.org petition, titled “UMASS Lowell’s dining services have slipped to an unacceptable level.”
“I made it, and went to sleep,” said Finerty, of Rockland. “When I woke up, it had blown up.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition had garnered 1,769 signatures.
The comments and photos quickly rolled in, with complaints of raw or undercooked food; dry, overcooked food; moldy and rotten food; foods unhealthily high in sodium; bugs in salads; hygiene and cross contamination issues; rude and apathetic staff; dwindling food options; repetitive meals; stations that open later and close earlier than posted hours; and constantly running out of plates, cups, utensils and basic self-serve foods. This in stark comparison, they said, to their sister university, UMass Amherst, ranked top in the nation for campus dining three years in a row.
Within 24 hours, Finerty was contacted by UML Dean of Student Affairs & Enrichment James Kohl to set up a meeting. Last Friday, Finerty met with Kohl and University Dining Director of Operations Aaron Bennos to outline the concerns -- and show the photos -- he’d collected from numerous students.
UML spokesman Jon Strunk said the university and Aramark, the company that manages UML’s dining services, will use the student feedback to “provide additional culinary training, customer service training and to invest in new equipment to meet the needs of students.”
“While the examples cited are rare, any instance of inadequately prepared food is one instance too many,” Strunk said.
Among the concerns cited by students, cross contamination ranked fairly high. Finerty shared anecdotes of staff not changing gloves between stations or after handling known allergens such as peanut products, mixing utensils between vegetarian and vegan dishes and those with meat and animal products, and a general disregard for food marked gluten-free, to the detriment of those with such dietary restrictions.
With meal plans nearing $5,000 and being required for many students who live on campus, it’s unacceptable that this is what students are getting for their money, Finerty said.
“A lot of students wrote me saying they were transferring or moving off campus and canceling their meal plans,” he said.
“I really don’t think I’m getting much for my money,” said freshman Maria Kotob, 19, of Gloucester, who assisted Finerty with the petition. “I’d rather eat out every single day with the money I spend on my meal plan.”
The biomedical engineering major said she often does anyway, because the dining hall food is “gross.”
Kotob said a scholarship covers her on-campus housing, so plans to stay, but she wants to drop her meal plan to the least-expensive option to at least partially make up for all the meals she eats off-campus.
Doctoral computer engineering student Taric Alani, 33, of Lowell, has been attending UML since 2014. He said the Fox Dining Commons used to be great, until a previous manager was promoted to another job elsewhere at the school. After she left, Alani said, food quality and service went down hill.
He said he’s asked numerous times that more nutritious foods with less sodium be added to the menu, but his requests have fallen on deaf ears, often with the excuse that such items were not available through Aramark’s chosen vendors or weren’t worth the trouble.
Last fall, Alani said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and University Events Larry Siegel and Aramark held a meeting for students to air their complaints.
“It went overtime,” Alani said. “They had no idea the length of the complaints we were offering.”
Some things did change -- such as the Hawk’s Nest being open later to accommodate students with late classes -- but there’s still a lot of room for improvement, he said.
Finerty said he was encouraged by his meeting with Kohl and Bennos, the latter of whom took several pages of notes.
“He seemed receptive, and visibly upset at the situation,” Finerty said. “He told me he takes it very seriously.”
Strunk said the meeting “was frank, positive and productive and provided an opportunity to highlight several ongoing and recent initiatives that address many of the concerns raised in the petition.”
Among the changes Strunk cited:
n Schedule shifts to rotate additional senior management to evening hours for a more consistent dining experience through the day;
n Increased frequency of random audits;
n Individual and as-needed training for staff as directed by comments submitted online and by comment card;
n Plates, cups and silverware are now reordered monthly instead of the beginning of the semester.
Strunk said they also plan to form student committees that will work with dining managers on their respective campuses and coordinate with a Student Dining Advisory Committee that will meet monthly after the winter break.
Finerty said he plans to serve on that committee, and is recruiting other students.
A spokeswoman for Aramark did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.