Spelman students, parents raise concerns about campus dining

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

College officials address complaints about dining services during town hall

This story has been updated for clarity.

Tina Hughes’ granddaughter has not eaten in the Spelman College dining hall since at least Sept. 13.

It was on that day, Hughes said, her granddaughter got sick after eating some fish.

“She refuses to eat in the dining hall now. Parents are spending $3,200 for a meal plan that these girls aren’t even using,” Hughes said of the meal plan costs per semester.

Hughes is one of several Spelman parents and caregivers who have lodged a series of complaints against the college about the quality and consistency of food choices.

They sent Spelman’s new president, Dr. Helene Gayle, a three-page letter outlining their concerns.

The letter included photos of what appeared to be undercooked meats and expired foods in vending machines. They complained that food is often mislabeled, making it difficult for students with dietary restrictions; that the cafeteria hours are not long enough; the food is bad and that food options should be expanded to address the needs of vegetarians and vegans.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Food insecurity while in college can have detrimental effects on students’ physical health, mental health, well-being, and not the least of all, academic performance,” the letter read. “If not addressed, the inadequate dining options that consistently lack nutritious value and provide suitable variety to the students with restricted diets could profoundly impact their ability to thrive and succeed at Spelman.”

Hughes said her granddaughter never visited a doctor for her illness and Spelman said there have been no reported cases of students getting sick because of the food on campus.

Spelman’s Vice President for Student Affairs Darryl Holloman held virtual town hall meetings for parents to discuss an array of topics, particularly the college’s finances, on Monday and Tuesday. He also fielded questions posted by parents about the food issues. In terms of food quality and safety, Holloman, who said he eats in the cafeteria daily, said the facility is regularly inspected and audited by federal and state agencies. Holloman said many of the concerns raised are being addressed.

The parents and caregivers outlined a series of possible solutions, including:

● Conducting listening sessions with students on how to improve their dining, residential, and campus life experiences.

● Serving fresh produce or pre-packaged food where students can shop with their meal plans.

● Prorating meal plan costs.

● Considering a new food service vendor.

The dispute in part is a conundrum that has plagued college campuses for centuries — the quality of the food versus how new students adjust to living and surviving on their own for the first time. But in recent years, students and parents have become more vocal about campuses having more nutritious dining options to combat diseases — particularly among Black Americans — caused in part by unhealthy foods.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Spelman, a historically Black college with about 2,200 students, is located near downtown Atlanta. All traditional first-year students are required to live on campus, which the college says is important to help them develop academically and adjust to campus life and customs. Students who live on campus spend about $6,519 annually for an all-access meal plan. That breaks down to $33 a day for three all-you-can-eat meals.

Like other institutions, Holloman said Spelman was impacted at the beginning of the semester by pandemic-related supply chain shortages and staffing issues.

Since the beginning of the school year, the dining hall staff has gone from 61 to 100, allowing the school to increase the hours at some of the retail food outlets.

Holloman said students who have concerns with their dietary choices can meet with the school’s dietitian to come up with a specific menu.

“These are things we should be responding to on an ongoing basis,” said Holloman, of the major concerns outlined in the letter.

Breah Banks, a junior psychology major from Minneapolis, said in response to some of the complaints about food on campus, she joined the school’s Dining Services Advisory Committee, “to help advocate for the improvement of dining services and to help be a voice for my peers.”

“I enjoy the food and there are always options for me,” said Banks, who is also the SGA’s secretary of student affairs. “But the intentionality behind what we are doing is serious. We are working to fix the current issues.”

Melissa Hickson, who is from Austin, Texas, said her daughter was a vegan before she entered Spelman, but has had to change her diet because she has not been satisfied with the college’s plant-based options.

“Initially, I thought she was being spoiled, because cafeteria food everywhere is not the best,” said Hickson, who also wants the college to consider minority-owned vendors and local farmers. “But when she started sending pictures I said this needs to be addressed.”

Officials from Aramark Collegiate Hospitality, the school’s food vendor, have been on campus this week to review and evaluate the menu.

“Seeking and understanding guest feedback is a part of our culture,” Adam Summer, Aramark’s director of strategic partnerships, said in a written response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We take all customer concerns about food quality very seriously and investigate every one that is brought to our attention. We are meeting with various campus groups to better understand their feedback and will communicate our plans to address the concerns that have been raised.”

Next week, Spelman will extend the hours at some of the campus restaurants.

Still, some who attended Monday’s meeting said they weren’t satisfied with the college’s responses.

“I feel like Spelman is sitting back and hoping that this goes away,” Hughes said. “We are not going away.”