Lister dining program changes back to square one

Board finance and property committee rejects proposed “anytime dining” in 5-4 vote.


A proposal to give University of Alberta students living in Lister Centre unlimited dining access and improved menu choices will not move ahead for next fall.

The proposed “anytime dining” program would have provided price certainty for students and the university, giving diners the option to eat as often as desired during expanded dining hall hours, according to Andrew Sharman, vice-president of facilities and operations.

Despite those stated improvements, the U of A’s board finance and property committee narrowly rejected the proposal over concerns about location, cost and student consultation. The decision means the university will have to look at other options, including the possibility of keeping the current “declining balance” meal plan.

“We appreciate and understand the committee's concerns, but the status quo fails to address the feedback we’ve heard from students,” Sharman said after the meeting. “They’ve told us, repeatedly and resoundingly, they want better quality food, they want more variety and healthier options. We know we need to be better, but the current model doesn’t allow us to do that.”

Declining balance scores poorly with students

The declining balance model has been used at the U of A for 30 years and has students preload a debit card at one of two price points, $4,554 or $3,873.

Sharman said the flaw with such programs, which are falling out of favour across the sector, is that students often choose the cheaper of the two price points and many—up to a third of Lister students in recent years—spend their balance before the end of the year. In 2015-16, students topped up an extra $117,000 to their meal plans—an average of $448 per student.

Dining services haven’t won many fans at Lister over the years. Students gave it a score of 4.06 out of 7.0 in the most recent satisfaction survey—a full two points lower than at Augustana Campus, which uses an anytime dining model.

In addition to the fixed price, anytime dining would give students 15 hours of dining hall access—even more during exams—and the option to take boxed food to go. The proposed price of $4,550 is lower than base meal plans at several comparable Canadian universities, including Saskatchewan, Wilfrid Laurier, Manitoba, Carleton and Memorial.

“This is $18.50 per day [per student],” Sharman told the committee. “I challenge you to find similar value elsewhere.”

The university first proposed changes to the dining plan last year but delayed implementation to allow for more student consultation. The university held two town hall meetings this past September, along with three meetings with the Students’ Union.

Feedback from students over the past 12 months resulted in a $350 price reduction, extended dining room hours and adding the option to pick up food in CAB.

Students critical of price point, flexibility

Student representatives were among the committee members to vote against the plan with academic and staff representatives David Cooper and Faiza Billo and Michael Phair. Students’ Union president Fahim Rahman said the proposal was too similar to last year’s and the SU’s own surveys show students don’t support it.

Rahman also criticized the plan for only having two locations for food service in Lister Centre and Peter Lougheed Hall, which will offer anytime dining when it opens in 2017. If students wanted to buy from other food vendors on campus, they would have to load additional dollars onto their ONEcards.

“I don’t think this really does improve the accessibility or flexibility of the meal plan,” said Rahman.

Graduate Students’ Association president Sarah Ficko said she failed to understand why food quality can’t be improved with the current program.

Sharman explained that it comes down to cost certainty. To procure the best food possible, the university’s food service partner, Aramark, needs to know how many students are going to eat in the dining hall. The company currently prepares meals based on estimated volume but only gets paid when students swipe their ONEcards.

“Wasted food is occurring on a grand scale due to uncertainty around patronage,” Sharman told the board.

Armed with firm numbers, he said the university and students would be able to work with Aramark to create menus that diners actually want. As for location and accessibility, he said those are things the university could address with Aramark as new cohorts of students move into Lister, but are not possible for year one.

Rahman said his preference would be to stick with the status quo and continue to press Aramark into providing better food.

“We have been able to move the needle on the quality of what Aramark is providing,” he said.

After the vote, Sharman said his team would need to review all possible options before returning to the board with an updated fee proposal for the university's 2017-18 budgeting process. But even if that means sticking with the status quo, it would mean a price increase to cover rising operating costs as ancillary services on a cost-recovery basis.