The second meeting of the Illinois Tech Food Advisory Board (FAB), a joint student initiative operating under the dual jurisdictions of the Student Government Association (SGA) and Residence Hall Association (RHA), was held on Thursday, September 21 from 3:15 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the MTCC Pritzker Club. At this open meeting, representatives from both of the aforementioned student organizations met with the management team of Illinois Tech Dining Services to discuss ongoing developments in the quality of campus dining and how to incorporate student feedback in that process. This organ of student leadership meets biweekly, and their meetings are always open to all students as a welcoming platform for airing their grievances on the state of campus dining.
In customary manner, the meeting began with a series of updates from Illinois Tech Dining Services General Manager Chris Ferenc over what changes and improvements are currently underway by the department in response to prior student feedback. He noted that the Hispanic Heritage Month buffet held in The Commons that very same day (featuring dishes such as sizzling steak fajitas, Cuban mojo pork, and beef tamales) was very well received by students. Dining Services has always noted that themed meal periods such as this tend to be popular with the student body. In a similar manner, the launch of special snacks and other treats (so far, warm pretzels and Krispy Kreme donuts have been served on select days) near the dessert counter in The Commons has also been met with warm reception. While on the subject of The Commons, student feedback has also led to a number of changes being rolled out, including the addition of sesame seed buns during the Friday burger days, increased frequency of special items (for example, chicken and steak quesadillas were featured on Wednesday, September 20), and more “innovative” small plate options were implied to be in the pipeline for debut at the grill station.
The final piece of student feedback concerned the expansion of breakfast items at meal periods other than breakfast time. More specifically, omelets are available on Mondays during lunch and dinner, and breakfast entrees are served during lunch and dinner on Friday and just during breakfast and lunch on Saturday and Sunday. While this decision was initially the result of student feedback from the prior academic year requesting more breakfast items available at other times of the day, Ferenc noted that Dining Services has since received additional feedback requesting a reversal of this decision. Thus, he announced that Friday dinner time will no longer include a breakfast bar, opting instead for a wok station in its place.
The RHA senator to SGA, David Arnold, and the RHA secretary, Izabela Mazur, then began a discussion on items brought forward to attention by their constituents within RHA. Arnold noted that the orange juice in The Commons was now correctly dispensing orange juice (this issue was brought up at the prior FAB meeting). Another item (from direct student feedback) brought up for consideration was whether the larger bowls used in The Commons for pastas could also be added to both the salad bar and cereal station. Ferenc responded that although this could create a supply issue, he would definitely look into the logistical feasibility of increasing the utility of these larger bowls.
Another student complaint brought forward by the RHA representatives was that there have been repeated observations that bagels in The Commons were not available during breakfast. Illinois Tech Dining Services Operations Manager Asa Brown clarified that these bagels are ordered and restocked daily, so the issue could simply be that they are not being replenished by the toaster station in a timely manner. He then issued his promise that these bagel supply issues would be properly addressed.
A larger area of student feedback concerned the omelet station and the feasibility of having egg whites available as an option for omelets. Ferenc noted that Dining Services has historically made egg white omelets available in the past, but it has always run into the issue of usage from the student body. Simply put, egg white omelets were not popular enough among the student body to warrant their inclusion, in his words. However, Ferenc made it clear that with sufficient student requests, egg white omelets can always be brought back. In the mean time, his department will take their potential inclusion back under review.
RHA Secretary Izaebla Mazur then provided additional pieces of student feedback, including the request that the ice cream station in The Commons use different scoopers for ice cream flavors that contain nuts. Ferenc and Brown agreed that this was a significant issue of potential cross contamination with a relatively easy remedy that will be immediately applied. In addition, Mazur received a number of complaints regarding the selection of Indian food in The Commons, including requests for increased rice variety and additional spices, such as masala, chili powder, and turmeric. Brown once again replied that both can be included to better accommodate the appetite for more traditional Indian cuisine. Continuing on, Mazur brought up student requests for increasing the duration of The Commons being open during the weekends, as well as increasing its weekend variety. Ferenc retorted that, on average, weekends in The Commons see only 20% of traffic that weekdays do, so increasing the duration of the establishment being open is logistically difficult. However, he did also reply that expanding the selection on Sunday nights would be considered.
Finally, TechNews writer Ethan Castro brought forward an article written the week prior to the meeting criticizing FAB and creating a narrative of its student leadership as inefficient, while also failing to account for the student feedback that drives its actions and the fact that it operates independently of Illinois Tech Dining Services in gathering said feedback. As “uninformed, unstructured, and ultimately uncouth” as this article was, in Castro’s words, he still maintained that such feedback was still of value to FAB as it is still motivated by genuine items of displeasure with the campus dining experience that are still worth exploring. In particular, the article in question brought up concerns over the omelets in The Commons being made from “fake-egg(s)” and that the gluten-free bread in The Commons was “usually nice and moldy.” As was previously addressed in this meeting’s discussion, the omelets in The Commons are indeed made from real eggs, and egg whites are even being brought back into consideration for inclusion. In regards to the gluten-free bread, Brown clarified that the casing used to house it is new for this year and that the bread itself is delivered fresh daily. However, for the sake of thoroughness, Brown will still look into the replenishing of the bread and its monitoring to see if issues of mold do indeed manifest themselves.
For the sake of clarification, I find it necessary to step away from my usual reporting tone in order to reiterate the structure of FAB and the fact that it is entirely-student driven. Ultimately, Illinois Tech Dining Services is its own separate business entity that makes its own decisions based on its own data and strategies, but students still have the opportunity to shape those decisions through their collective voices and structured feedback. Currently, SGA and RHA comprise the largest collective bodies of students that provide the platforms necessary to bring grievances forward to those who can act upon them. Knowing that these organizations exist and how to get involved in such conversation is half the battle.
Yes, Illinois Tech Dining Services is not perfect in terms of its quality or service, but that is exactly why organizations such as FAB exist. Organizations like FAB are only possible because of the generous commitments of its student volunteers to take the time out of their own schedules to attempt to improve the status of campus life. Unless you are willingly choosing to be ignorant of their structure and purposefully excluding yourself from these conversations, criticisms from afar will do little to elevate the quality of campus life; action is required.
Sitting at the FAB table is just one way that students who are dissatisfied with campus dining can help to improve it (once again, these body meets biweekly on Thursdays from 3:15 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the MTCC Pritzker Club). The next FAB meeting will be held at that same time and place on Thursday, October 5. Even if that is not enough, the management team of Dining Services can always been seen around The Commons, and they are more than willing to start a conversation with a student over what can be done better or added to The Commons. For example, Brown provided an anecdote of a long conversation he had with a student in The Commons that indirectly led to the more frequent inclusion of bacon at the grill station. And if all that is still not enough, complaints can always be relayed to RHA at their email address (firstname.lastname@example.org). Never-ending as complaints about Illinois Tech Dining Services may be, the members of FAB will continue to work to incrementally improve the overall student experience and invite all others to join in the same purpose.