Dining programs overhauled

The University is ditching its much-maligned mandatory dining program for sophomores, after fielding five years of student complaints about limited venue options and expensive, unhealthy food.

Students with 30 to 59 credit hours will purchase an additional $500 in Colonial Cash – money that can be spent at participating restaurants across the District – instead of buying the $500 dollar meal plan that can only be spent at Sodexo-run venues in the Marvin Center and West Hall. The change will take effect in the fall.

Freshmen will still be required to purchase the $750 per semester in dining dollars to spend at Sodexo-run venues. Junior and senior dining programs will remain unchanged.

J Street has been the target of constant criticism for its fast food offerings and lack of variety. Over the past several years, student feedback and the Student Association’s lobbying prompted the University and Sodexo to undertake small-scale changes like paint jobs, providing more organic food and adding a hot bar to the J Street Cafe – changes dwarfed by the revamp GW will undertake now.

“This is something that has been a hot-button issue for GW students for three or four years at least, especially with mandatory spending coming and Sodexo-run J Street. We wanted to look into this and see if there was a way we could work within the J Street structure and make it more student-friendly,” Rob Maxim, the 2010-2011 Student Association executive vice president, said.

The mandatory dining program was established in 2007, after the University adopted a contractual revision intended to ensure financial stability for Sodexo.

“This is a partnership, and we work together to bring students the services and programs that best meet their needs,” Nancy Haaga, director of GW’s Campus Support Services, said. “All of these changes that are coming about this summer…were brought about directly from student feedback. That’s the bottom line.”

Students will also find J Street physically revamped come fall. The staircase at the center of the dining area will be filled in, and the replica of the Washington monument removed, freeing up the central space.

The layout of J Street has also been a target of ire for students, as the staircase decreases the amount of seating and kitchen space for the cramped dining area.

Chik-fil-A and Wendy’s, two staples of the J Street food court, will also be replaced with Sodexo venues. WOW Café and Wingery, another popular Marvin Center eatery, closed permanently at the end of the spring semester.

“What we’re trying to achieve is that the choices that you have within J Street at the various places you can go, you can create a balanced nutritious dining experience. You no longer have to feel that when you come to J Street that most of it is fast food,” Haaga said.

Sodexo will experiment with a new concept in place of Wendy’s by opening a diner-type venue slated to offer a made-to-order grill as well as to-go options, salads and coffee drinks.

The diner will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and will stay open until midnight as an alternative to Wendy’s late-night hours. It will also be open on weekends, in response to student complaints that they could not spend their mandatory dining dollars on Saturdays and Sundays.

Another new venue, which will take the place of Chik-fil-A, will offer students the feel of traditional homecooked meals and American comfort food.

“They’re a little more center-of-plate, just a little more filling, for people who want a traditional dinner with starch, protein, a salad on-the-side kind of thing,” Haaga said.

The closing of the three restaurants marks the end to fast food in J Street as long as Sodexo continues to provide food services at GW. The company’s contract with its union prevents any new outside vendors to be brought into the program.

“The way we are sort of thinking about this is, and some of what students has told us is – I call fast food ordinary food. You can get ordinary food anywhere…And our approach to this has been to take a fundamental change and really that change is to focus on healthy, fresh, made-to-order food,” Haaga said.

The J Street Café, which offers salads, hot meals and vegetarian options in a buffet-style, pay-by-weight format, will still be open. Prices, which were also brought down in January, will see a further dip. The price per ounce will be reduced from 50 cents to 48 cents for hot foods and 42 cents for salads.

“Sodexo made, what I believe and what I hope, will be a very strategic, good decision to take a good hard look at their pricing structure and to figure out how they can be more competitive,” Haaga said. “Value is always the perception of the customer. And if the customer perceives that I can go to other places and spend whatever it is.and the quality is just as good or better, than why would I go to J Street?”

Students will also see reduced prices on coffee drinks, which are offered in several venues throughout J Street. Seattle’s Best Coffee, a fair-trade brand which already is served in Sodexo’s G-Dub Java venues, will replace Starbucks products.

Freshens Energy Zone, the popular frozen yogurt venue, will still be open and will offer an additional tangy yogurt flavor. Menus at the Sodexo Asian venue and kosher deli will be expanded, though menus are not yet finalized.

“There shouldn’t only be a dialogue when people aren’t happy. There should be a dialogue always because things change and things tend to evolve over time, and unless you’re communicating and talking with one another you may miss things, and you may not see how the customers’ needs are changing,” Haaga said.

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