The University of Minnesota will consider parting ways with its Twin Cities campus dining vendor of more than two decades — including a possible switch to preparing meals for students in-house.
For several years, U student government leaders have complained about Aramark, the Philadelphia-based company also in charge of concessions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Students argue the company has lagged in offering healthy, vegetarian and vegan options and foods for students with allergies and religious dietary restrictions — concerns Aramark says it has worked hard to address.
Students voiced disappointment that the university is gearing up to approve a contract extension of up to two years with Aramark in October, arguing the administration has been slow to heed their concerns. U officials, who credit the company with making improvements, say they need the extra time to bid out the contract and to consider reverting to the self-service model embraced by other public schools in the Big Ten.
Regents signaled last week they will support the extension, but some joined students in questioning the administration’s timing.
“This process should be ending now, not starting now,” said regent Mike Kenyanya.
U leaders stressed the importance of thoughtfully considering what would be a major transition for the campus and vowed to grant students a key role in the process. Michael Berthelsen, the U’s vice president for university services, said the school must strike a balance between affordability and quality. The U now has the second-lowest room and board costs in the Big Ten.
“When it comes to food, it’s difficult to make 50,000 people happy,” he said. “We listen to the feedback from students.”
A spokeswoman for Aramark noted additions to its campus offerings since 2017 include vegan sauté stations, ice cream and pizza at several dorms, halal and kosher items, allergen-friendly stations and gluten-free choices.
The U prepared food for students in-house until 1998, when it first contracted with Aramark; its current contract with the company expires next June.
Over the past decade, Aramark’s operation on the Twin Cities campus averaged $50 million in annual sales, the U said. About $1.9 million a year in revenue, on average, has gone to the company while the U has brought in $3.1 million a year, which officials say helps keep room and board affordable, maintain facilities and support athletics.
In the company’s most recent performance review by the U, it met satisfaction and safety goals at athletic and other venues but failed to hit them when it came to campus food service outlets.
The U is now the only public school — and one of only two institutions — in the Big Ten that contracts out for dining services. The U’s Duluth campus handles its own dining services.
Aramark also provides dining services at Hamline University, where a spokeswoman said the school is satisfied with the vendor.
The Minnesota Student Association (MSA), the Twin Cities undergraduate student government, first elevated campus dining to a top priority in 2016 after hearing complaints from students. More recently, the association and other student groups put out a report calling for fresher, less processed food and more kosher, halal, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, among other changes. The report also pitched the idea of a campus grocery store.
Senior James Farnsworth says he has appreciated changes Aramark has made, including efforts to better accommodate students with food allergies. But to him, the food overall remains lackluster, with pet peeves such as runny scrambled eggs and less-than-fresh lettuce in salads.
“It’s clear it’s mass-produced food, and you can just tell the quality is not there,” he said.
Students voiced dismay earlier this year when they found out the university is gearing up to grant a contract extension to Aramark. An online petition opposing the extension bashed what it called “closed-door and unresponsive communication attempts” on the issue and garnered 2,300 signatures.
Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler said campus menus created by certified chefs include low-calorie options, whole grains, locally sourced foods and fresh produce. Aramark also has a full-time dietitian on staff who has worked with students needing special accommodations.
“The dedicated dining services team, which includes up to 900 student employees, is committed to creating a nourishing dining experience that reflects the diverse needs of the campus community,” she said.
Levi O’Tool, the MSA’s campus life committee director, says new U President Joan Gabel has signaled her team will work closely with students on the issue.
Still, “it’s concerning for us that it took so long for the administration to take the topic of campus dining seriously,” he said.
Based on a U survey, students at most resident halls gave the quality and taste of food about a 2.5 on a five-point scale, with higher marks for customer service and cleanliness. The company’s retail dining options also fared better in the survey.
The university plans to bid out the contract by next spring. Meanwhile, officials will research the cost and logistical challenges of switching back to self-service dining.
At last week’s meeting, some regents pressed officials on their timing and responsiveness to student concerns.
“Another two years to study this seems like a long time given where we are and what we know,” said regent Michael Hsu.
Regent Darrin Rosha said the dining operation is well-run and he has heard positive feedback from students. Still, he said it’s important that the university engage a cross section of students in the process ahead.
Berthelsen said some of the criticism about the timing is fair. But he stressed the university has worked with Aramark to address student concerns in recent years — though, he said, “we certainly know there’s still room for improvement.”