Progress Check… University Housing and Dining

dorm roomOregon State University Housing and Dining Services (UHDS) has gotten a lot of heat from The Advocate in the past. We outlined how their promises don’t match up to what we see in real life, and expressed little faith in any changes made. We also amalgamated all food services on campus to be the responsibility of UHDS, which is not the case. UHDS operates the student meal plan, a few cafes, a market, and a convenience store. Memorial Union Retail Food Services (MURFS) is responsible for the food in Dixon, the MU, and the library.

After His First Year as Executive Director, Dan Larson

I met with Dan Larson, the executive director of UHDS, to discuss the changes he and his team have made and hope to make in the future regarding healthy food options and affordable on-campus housing.

Larson is visibly excited about nutrition, and his mantra seems to be ingredients with integrity. Of course, price point is important, and due to their position as a large-volume buyer, they are able to put a little pressure on distributors to utilize better sourcing practices, or to use better ingredients so that distributors can support the UHDS objective.

In a recent flier, UHDS outlined their goals: to “create transformative learning environments,” to “equalize student success,” and to “improve health.” Improve health is the one Larson and I focused on the most. Larson and his team have overhauled the program and seem to have put nutrition first. In Bing’s Cafe in Weatherford Hall, nutrition facts and handy allergy guides are visible and accessible, making it obvious that nutrition is at the forefront of these new goals. The same cannot be said for Dixon Cafe, where calorie info is not posted—nor are ingredient lists or allergy labels. UHDS-1, MURFS-0.

UHDS’ next big food project is fixing up the convenience stores, moving from stocking what sells to encouraging better eating habits. They are also working on getting SNAP accepted at Cascadia Market on campus, which would improve accessibility. UHDS is also working with the colleges of Agriculture, Horticulture, and Crop and Soil Science to grow a garden on campus. While it won’t be possible to utilize the garden for all of UHDS’ produce needs, it’s a start, and it could allow for heirloom varieties of veggies and fruits to be featured on the menus. It’s impossible to say for sure when and how these changes will affect students, but it’s exciting to see the concerted effort to feature real foods for students on a budget.

Evaluating UHDS Progress

Brooklyn, a former resident advisor, said that the meal plan is better and healthier, and that they tell you what’s in the food, but that it is more expensive. To that, Larson said that he tries really hard to find the best price at his volume level. He seems genuine, and it is a hard problem to tackle. But it definitely remains cheaper to eat off campus.

This brings us to the cost of living on campus, which also remains high. Dorm living cost varies on hall, anywhere from $11,775 (per academic year, in a large single room in Weatherford Hall), to $5,304 (per academic year, in a triple room  in Sackett Hall). This does not include meal plans, which range from $3,501 to $1,290 per year. The average cost of living in a dorm is $8,553 for the dorm and $2,396 for the meal plan. That means a student’s monthly cost is $1,216.

By comparison, I live in a two-bedroom on 9th Street and I split the $750 rent. I shop at various grocery stores, and my monthly cost of living is way less than $1,216. I don’t even make that much monthly. Living on campus remains generally more expensive than off-campus options, often prohibitively so. UHDS did introduce less expensive triple rooms for the 2013-’14 academic year and it’s experiencing some success, but these still cost a minimum of $5,055 yearly before adding in a meal plan.

Larson seems genuine about the changes he and his team have made, and optimistic about the future. He is excited to work with SNAP to make Cascadia Market more accessible, and with the colleges to create a garden, which is an exciting development that anyone can get behind. 

The expanded options for triple rooms are somewhat encouraging, but in general it remains difficult to rationalize on-campus options unless something can be done to bend the cost curve downwards. Larson has been at the job for only a little over a year and he remains optimistic in the face of many challenges. The Advocate will continue to track UHDS as it grapples to make improvements.

By Rachel Sandstrom

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