January 17, 2014 by Richard Furstein
Recently, Drexel University’s administration sent an email to students, inviting us to take a professor to the Handschumacher Dining Center for a discussion and a meal. Personally, I was a bit confused, since April 1 is still three months away. If we’re being honest with ourselves, the Hans is the absolute last place I would want to meet with a professor — unless we were discussing the decrepit state of free-market capitalism in the campus restaurant industry. What I’m getting at here is, we all dislike the Hans. Sure, it’s convenient (and free to certain Drexel employees), and they put on great holiday and Family Weekend events, but overall it’s not that good. Why does a university with Drexel’s credentials and price tag maintain such a subpar dining service? Because of socialism.
Blaming this on socialism isn’t strictly true, or even very accurate. However, Drexel’s relationship with our main foodservice provider, Sodexo, does look like something out of the USSR. Not only is the Hans completely managed by the Hans, but it’s also guaranteed Drexel students’ business. Freshmen are still required to buy a meal plan, and resident assistants are still paid with a Drexel meal plan. What do Drexel students get by consenting to Sodexo’s tyranny? Recently, such major improvements as a vegetarian table, an international section and even a take-out option became available. Forgive me if I’m not thrilled. I guess it’s because all the “international dishes” in the world don’t make up for the lack of dedicated kosher or halal food. And before you get through telling me that “this is America, blah, blah, blah,” keep in mind that Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, Indian and Jewish students are also paying into this system and expecting to benefit from its services.
As I already stated, Drexel’s relationship with Sodexo is at the root of many of our problems. By entrusting Sodexo with both the job of providing the service and internally regulating complaints, Drexel has washed its hands of responsibility for what happens within the Hans. Consider, for example, the infamous 2010 safety inspection that found multiple violations in the Hans (beverages a la fruitfly, kitchen counters with a side of mouse feces and mops in the vegetable sinks). Although later internal Sodexo audits reported the problem fixed, a June 2011 inspection by city officials found similar insect-related issues. It seems silly to complain about dietary accommodations when Sodexo is still working on basic sanitation issues.
Let’s compare Sodexo’s monopolistic practices to another corporation many Philadelphians have to deal with: the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. While we all have our gripes about missed buses, skyrocketing fares and dirty stations, there are some noticeable differences between Sodexo and SEPTA. SEPTA is governed by elected officials (from the five Pennsylvania counties that it serves), and it holds numerous public hearings every year. Sodexo has comment cards. SEPTA adapts its system to the needs of the disabled (Customized Community Transportation paratransit buses, new elevator and ramp installations, etc.), while Sodexo simply absolves students with special dietary needs from the freshman meal plan obligation.
And what’s wrong with simply allowing students with special dietary concerns to opt out of the system? We’re excluding them. By requiring students to pay to enter the Hans, we are telling students with allergies, digestive issues or moral and religious objections that they cannot eat with “the rest of us.” How nice that a small restaurant next to the Hans now offers vegetarian options. Let’s keep the veggies to themselves. And don’t worry, we can just send the Jews and Muslims to the University of Pennsylvania’s dining hall, so they can be with their own kind.
This kind of exclusion goes completely unnoticed by other students, because we cannot actively see Sodexo’s discrimination. But what we can see is the structural discrimination against the physically disabled. How are students with special needs expected to enter the Hans? Through a hidden elevator in MacAlister. I’m glad that we had the money to completely replace the Hans’ glass entrance, but not to install a convenient elevator. The Hans was not designed to be serviceable to all of Drexel’s students.
It’s easy to rip on Drexel, but is there a better way? Drexel students who have visited their UPenn, Villanova University and Temple University friends have noticed that their dining halls do not require payment upon entry. Their dining halls are excellent places to socialize, whether a student is on the campus dining plan or not. In addition to this simple change to the payment scheme, Drexel would also benefit greatly from absolving its monopolistic contract with Sodexo, and abolishing “Dining Dollars” (considering we already have Dragon Dollars). Drexel could encourage small restaurants to populate our dining hall, creating actual economic competition. Introducing competition lowers the price point, making food affordable for Drexel students. With the myriad of different food trucks already populating Drexel’s and UPenn’s campuses, there are plenty of ethnically specific options for Drexel’s Retail Management Office to investigate.
At the end of the day, we pay a lot of money to go here. We are obligated to pay even more for our food service. We deserve better than Sodexo’s excuse for service.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.