Long Lines and Short Fuses in the Dining Halls

Institutions across the U.S. face a shortage of dining hall workers. Can Grubhub, Panda Express and spatula-wielding professors fill the gap?

October 21, 2021
 
Getty Images
Institutions from California to Rhode Island are facing struggles in finding dining hall workers.

After Michigan State University closed two of its dining halls for dinner service because of a staffing shortage, administrators asked university faculty and staff to step in.

“Faculty and staff from around campus are invited to sign up to assist in the dining halls,” Vennie Gore, senior vice president for residential and hospitality services and auxiliary enterprises, wrote in an email to university deans, directors and chairs. “We have specific needs during evenings and weekends. I ask that you share this message with your departments and units.”

Some faculty and staff objected to the invitation.

“It’s about as tone-deaf as I could imagine,” said Susan Masten, a civil and environmental engineering professor. “There isn’t a faculty or staff member that I know of that isn’t exhausted, burnt-out, struggling with their kids … And then they’re supposed to go and volunteer in the cafeteria?”

Masten said the request didn’t make sense given the university’s $3.4 billion endowment. In addition, she said, the university has cut pay and contributions to retirement benefits -- and most faculty and staff haven’t gotten a raise in years.

Danny Caballero, an associate professor of physics education, said the request was frustrating because it didn’t elaborate on the dining hall struggles or discuss whether other measures were being taken.

“I found the request to be very strange, because it seems like there are potentially quite a few other solutions to this, and it’s not clear that they have been tried,” Caballero said. “I understand people are working hard to try to address those problems, but it’s just such an odd request of folks.”

Masten and Caballero both said they haven’t heard of a single colleague willing to volunteer.

Michigan State is not the only university combating staffing shortages, particularly in food service; institutions from California to Rhode Island are facing the same struggles. And these shortages are not unique to higher education; as anyone who’s walked down a main street knows, businesses across the country are desperate for employees. But because universities serve largely captive populations whose families often pay a lot for their residential experience, they are especially invested in finding ways to staff their housing and dining services.

Related Stories

Michigan State has been “steadily filling the jobs,” said Kat Cooper, chief communications officer for the university’s Residential and Hospitality Services; they’ve moved from needing 90 additional dining hall employees each day to needing 50 more, she said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan State -- which usually has a population of 49,000 -- only had around 3,000 students on campus, so dining hall services were severely reduced, Cooper said. Some staff were furloughed, and the university didn’t employ student dining hall workers.

When students returned to campus this year, the university only retained about 400 student dining hall employees from last year, compared to the 4,000 who usually return, Cooper said. Students are often reluctant to get a job when they first arrive on campus, and since there are essentially two new classes this year -- freshmen and sophomores -- the pool is further reduced.

Outside employees are scarce, too, Cooper said. Some have retired and others have trouble securing childcare. Currently, she said there are more than 70 full-time positions open.

“Coming into the fall, we knew we had a big gap to fill,” Cooper said. “And we made some adjustments to our dining program in order to make sure that we were able to serve our students.”

Since Gore’s email went out, about 30 people have signed up to serve in the dining halls. It’s helpful for faculty and staff to volunteer, Cooper said, and the university appreciates it. Even so, some staff have been working overtime. Additionally, Michigan State employees who weren’t originally hired as dining hall employees have been working eight hours a week in food service, Cooper said; others are adding overtime shifts to help with the dining halls.

The university even raised the hourly minimum wage from $13 to $15 to combat the worker shortage, Cooper said. Dining services has also partnered with campus outposts of Starbucks and Panda Express to spread out demand and created a program that allows students dining in at lunch to grab an extra meal to go for dinner.

The students are not pleased. Student Anna Heim started a petition last month to keep Heritage Commons at Landon Hall, a residential dining venue, open for dinner. Heim wrote that many female students may feel uncomfortable traveling farther on campus at night in search of other dining options, and that taking the bus risks exposing them to COVID-19.

“Please reconsider your choice as it greatly impacts the students of Michigan State University,” Heim wrote in the petition, which has gathered 800 signatures. “We all paid for an expensive dining hall plan, and it is an injustice for it to be limited so severely without consideration of how student life would be impacted.”

Currently, Heritage Commons is open only for breakfast and lunch. On Nov. 1, Landon Hall will begin offering grab-and-go options for dinner, according to the Michigan State website.

Part of a Larger Issue

Michigan State is not the only institution struggling to feed its students. The University of Rochester temporarily closed the Danforth Dining Hall due to staffing shortages, offering a 20 percent refund to students enrolled in a meal plan. Rochester students can still eat at the Douglass Dining Center or order a to-go meal through Grubhub, which they pick up in a room inside the dining center. The university is also bringing food trucks to the campus. Students can pay for meals from Grubhub and the food truck using the balance on their meal plan.

The shift is meant to consolidate dining hall workers for maximum efficiency. Rochester’s dining FAQ page says streamlining operations will allow the university to make sure that all stations in the open dining venues are fully staffed. The page also addresses questions about the high cost of buying meals from outside vendors, stating the university will monitor spending and that the options are “meant to supplement the student dining experience, not replace it.”

“University dining leaders continue to innovate new ways to deliver students fresh food with a variety of options, as well as meet students’ different dietary needs, and in recent weeks the staffing levels have improved,” a spokesperson said.

The Rochester student government has also tried to address some of the issues. President Sabeet Kazmi said his organization started a dining feedback forum for students to voice their complaints, which they relayed to the university’s dining director. One student started a petition on the student government’s website asking for a refund on their dining plan, Kazmi said, prompting the student government to put pressure on administrators to reconsider how they were handling dining hall service.

“At the start of the dining crisis, a significant number of students were very upset, definitely outraged and very concerned about how much they were paying for the food yet not receiving in return,” Kazmi said. “I think those concerns and that frustration has gone down significantly.”

At Brown University, trouble started in early September, when indoor dining was suspended due to high COVID-19 case numbers. On Sept. 22, Russell Carey, the executive vice president of planning and policy, announced the return of in-person dining, but students are reporting ongoing issues with long lines and limited options.

The university’s dining website blames COVID-19, labor shortages and supply-chain problems, which impacts menu planning.

Brown sophomore Chas Steinbrugge has taken to posting about the issue on the university’s Instagram meme page. The account, @brownumemes, which has over 7,000 followers, has several posts about campus dining, including one photoshopped meme of university president Christina Paxson shaking her head no to “increasing wages and improvising working conditions to fill dining staff vacancies in a competitive job market,” while nodding her head yes to “understaffing the dining halls to the detriment of the remaining staff and students on the meal plan.”

It also makes note of the fact that the university’s endowment grew significantly to $6.9 billion last fiscal year with a 50 percent return.

“The endowment isn’t a flex unless it’s used to support the front line workers in our community,” Steinbrugge wrote in the caption. “The fact that there are vacancies that aren’t being filled means that the compensation and conditions of our staff have been deemed a bad deal by the open market. The University needs to improve the quality of our jobs across campus until all vacancies are filled.”

Another post uses a Star Wars meme format to criticize the administration’s handling of the dining situation. “Our campus is littered with take-out boxes because we don't have the infrastructure to throw them all away!!” it reads. “Admin [doesn’t] care about the massive lines because they don’t have to wait in them.”

At the University of Iowa, Director of University Dining Jill Irvin told The Daily Iowan that dining services, which typically employs about 1,400 students, only has about 500 working this semester. One student told the paper that juggling schoolwork with a food service job was extra stressful this year because they were being asked to compensate for all the missing workers.

At the University of Southern California, three dining hall workers spoke anonymously with the student newspaper about long hours and high stress due to persistent understaffing.

Caballero, the Michigan State professor, said he hopes the nationwide demand for dining hall workers will force institutions to reconsider the value of their employees, especially since dining hall jobs often require a lot of physical labor.

“They’re an important, necessary position that makes the university function, and it’s not just them -- it’s many other positions that we have,” Caballero said. “We have to value those jobs in ways that we don’t presently. And what I mean by that is really think clearly about how we’re going to compensate folks for taking those positions, what kinds of rooms for advancement there could be, and what kind of benefits those folks are getting.”

Read more by

CORONAVIRUS

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top