At the beginning of winter quarter Aramark implemented a new winter menu, called the Purple Menu, in University dining halls and other locations across the Midwest, which reduced the variety of foods available and was intended to cut food costs. The menu has since been adjusted in response to student feedback.
The new menu means that the corporate side of Aramark has more control in setting the menu in Arley D. Cathey Dining Commons and Bartlett Dining Commons, rather than independent decisions being made by University officials. The Purple Menu includes more casseroles, more rice and pasta dishes and fewer protein and vegetable dishes, according to University spokesperson Mary Abowd. Additionally, Kirsten Wiard-Bauer, a third-year and the Booth House student dining hall representative, was told by an Aramark representative at a committee meeting that individual packets of cream cheese and peanut butter were cut in favor of large tubs for cost-cutting purposes. However, UC Dining has asserted that this statement is not correct.
"UChicago Dining and Aramark work together to create a new menu each quarter. The one which was developed for winter quarter was not particularly well received by students," Natalie David, a fourth-year and the president of Inter-House Council (IHC), wrote in an e-mail. "The ‘Purple Menu’ is simply a collection of food offerings/recipes developed by Aramark. It’s one of their many color-named menus (which are modified for the many university campuses Aramark serves)."
IHC is a student representative body overseen by UChicago Housing that is composed of one representative from each House and an eight-member executive committee.
According to Wiard-Bauer, the Purple Menu was never officially reported to the dining hall representative committee, but it did come up "casually" in discussion.
"We were all sitting in a really large table and the dining hall representatives were like, ‘My house members said this,’ and we bounced off of each other. And then at one point the Aramark representative [Eric Young] was like, ‘Well, a lot of these things are because of the new Purple Menu that corporate has introduced,’" Wiard-Bauer said.
Richard Mason, the executive director of UChicago Dining, attests that changes have been made since the initial rollout of the Purple Menu in response to student comments.
"UChicago Dining listened to some comments we received from students who did not like the changes, and we have re-adjusted the menu over the past few weeks in response. Dining committees and students have given us positive feedback about these changes," Mason wrote in a statement.
In addition to the responses from student committees, student feedback has also come in the form of comment cards written in the dining halls. The information on these cards is aggregated and analyzed on a regular basis in order to gauge student response to changes in services. However, this data is not made available to the public, according to Abowd.
Chamberlin House’s IHC representative and second-year Elizabeth Lipschultz put in a request for someone from UChicago Dining to talk to IHC about the general decline in food. In response, Mason attended a recent IHC meeting and urged students not to focus on the details of the Purple Menu. Instead, he explained decline in food quality by Aramark’s sustainability requirements, which requires the dining halls to purchase 35 percent of the food that it serves within a 130-mile radius of the University.
"A lot of animals, a lot of produce aren’t great in the area right now because of the weather and it’s hard to make a menu that works around that. They tried to switch to things that were more like soups and casseroles and stuff like that. That didn’t go over well, obviously," Lipschultz said. "But they said that it’s not a financial thing, not a sustainability thing, or that’s what they claim. A lot of people are trying to figure out whether it’s been a financial decision. It seems like they try to deny or at least deflect from that."
Changes have already been made to the menu to bring back popular food items, such as spinach. Additionally, there will be a new menu for spring quarter that is expected to include larger amounts of locally sourced fruit. The color associated with the upcoming menu was not available.
"Sometimes the quality is a little underwhelming. Like I’ve come here before and not found anything that I wanted to eat because there’s only so many times you can have the same salad and sandwich. I understand that there’s not much they can do in terms of those options, but you know I’d love it if the quality of the food were a bit better," Caroline Newman, a first-year student recently eating at Bartlett Dining Commons, said.
Aramark Corporation was founded in 1959 and now operates in 22 countries, and supplies food and facilities to universities, federal and state prisons, businesses, sports facilities, and healthcare institutions. Last November, Aramark reported an approximately 10 percent increase in revenue, from approximately $13.5 million to $14.8 million and quarterly dividends have been increased by 15 percent. The new chair of the University Board of Trustees, Joseph Neubauer (MBA ’65), has been the chairman of the board of Aramark since 1984.
Correction - March 9 2015: The original article was ambiguous in its attribution of the statement that individual cream cheese packets were cut in favor of large tubs for cost-cutting purposes. This information was provided by Kirsten Wiard-Bauer, not University spokesperson Mary Abowd. UC Dining submitted a statement to the contrary after the initial publication of this article.