Despite better student engagement, Compass struggles to accommodate diet restrictions

Alex Wong, Reporter

Despite increased efforts of Northwestern’s food provider to address student concerns, some students with dietary restrictions say they have consistently found themselves leaving the new dining halls hungry and unsatisfied — and some have quit eating at dining halls altogether.

“I’m trying to eat more of the dining hall food, but it’s kind of a sh-t show because there isn’t a whole lot for me,” said Weinberg sophomore Zoë Huettl, who is vegan. “You’re like, ‘Cool, really disappointing I guess I just have to go back to my room and try to make dinner out of my snacks or go spend money on a restaurant.”

Many gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian students say Northwestern’s new food service provider, Compass Group North America, has provided marginal to no improvement to accommodate dietary restrictions compared to Sodexo, while some have said food options have decreased significantly.

Most commonly, students say dining halls lack vegan or gluten-free main courses with enough protein compared to last year’s dining halls — many said Compass lacks non-meat protein such as lentils or chickpeas that dining halls previously provided under Sodexo.

“I really feel like they lack good dishes for vegans,” Weinberg sophomore Emma Belanger said. “Four or five times a week, I don’t have a main course. I don’t remember this ever being a problem.”

Students have been rejected or found it difficult to get a refund for the unlimited meal plan — required for students living in campus residence halls — leading to frustration over wasted money.

The University’s Meal Plan Terms and Conditions state that students must demonstrate a “medical or severe” dietary restriction through a doctor’s note accompanied by letter from University Student Health Services and meet with the campus dietician, Lisa Carlson, to verify that the dining halls don’t meet their needs.

The extra costs of finding food elsewhere — snacks and meals from on-campus convenience stores or bought off-campus — can then compound an extra financial burden.

“I have an on campus job so I have some disposable income to buy snacks and stuff, but… not everybody can do that,” Huettl said. “If you rely solely on the dining hall, you almost can’t be vegan because there isn’t enough protein to sustain you.”

Still, Compass’ efforts to engage with these concerns have marked a significant improvement from Sodexo, many students said.

The new provider has created a host of tools for students to communicate their concerns, with a Dine On Campus app and website and a text-to-dine service that allows students to text directly with Compass staff. Compass will also launch a student dining advisory committee in January that will meet monthly to give it feedback, said Georgene Sardis, the Compass marketing director.

Moreover, Compass changed the east wing of Foster-Walker in October into a Pure Eats dining hall, which avoids the eight most common allergens such as wheat and dairy, and created avoiding-gluten corners at all dining halls.

Sardis said Compass primarily announces changes to their dining halls like these on its social media accounts, but many students said they were unaware the advisory committee and the Pure Eats dining hall existed.

“There’s not a lot of information that’s like, ‘Oh if you’re vegan eat at this dining hall, this is where we have the most options for you,’” Huettl said. “I just go to Plex West because it’s closer to me, and I didn’t realize they’re different. So maybe I still don’t know a lot of the important stuff.”

Sardis also said Compass is trying to respond quickly to concerns as they arise by changing its menu items and allergen stations, and she said Compass has received positive feedback for its Pure Eats dining hall and other accommodations.

Some students said they are reluctant to voice their concerns and are unsure whether their dietary restrictions would be valid reasons for the dining halls to change. Other students have accepted the status quo — that the dining halls will always leave them hungry — and don’t believe it will change.

“Maybe there aren’t that many vegans here, maybe it’s just a me problem,” Huettl said. “I’ve also been avoiding the dining hall and had an attitude of, ‘They don’t have food that I eat so I’m going to eat somewhere else or just be hungry.’ That’s a little dramatic, but it’s frustrating to go to every station and see there’s nothing you can eat.”

Some of the few students that have been more vocal, however, said Compass has been accommodating almost to an extreme.

When SESP first-year Michelle Sheinker, who is gluten-free and vegetarian, reached out to Compass, she got in touch with a chef who gave Sheinker her number and told Sheinker to text her in the morning whenever Sheinker wanted pasta. She also met with Carlson, who Sheinker said was also receptive to her concerns and did her best to help Sheinker.

But Sheinker said barriers existed for the chef and Carlson in creating the larger changes at the dining hall that would allow Sheinker access to enough food, such as adding more gluten-free pasta and pizza in all dining halls. Foster-Walker, Sheinker said, wasn’t accessible enough because she lived on North campus.

“I met with Lisa, but I could tell she was frustrated too,” Sheinker said. “While she was trying to push the dining to be sensitive, the kitchens don’t always follow, just because of practicality reasons. And I understand that it’s asking a lot to accommodate one or two people.”

Situations like these where students feel like their demands for dining halls aren’t realistic have led many to stop using the dining halls altogether. The sentiment may be exacerbated by the lack of on-campus advocacy groups for students with dietary restrictions, SESP junior Livi Barton said.

“It’s kind of students who are struggling all on their own and not actually having a sit-down time to say, ‘Let’s talk to our food provider about this,’” Barton said. “Who has time to do that? We’re busy students, and I’m not going to expect people who are already struggling to figure out, ‘Oh can I eat at the dining hall today?’ to also run a club.”

Still, for others, hearing about the upcoming advisory committee and the Pure Eats dining hall — along with their interactions with Compass staff — has provided hope that the dining halls will improve over time.

“I like to know that students are in control of their own dietary freedom because if you don’t eat well you’re not going to feel well and perform at your academic height,” Sheinker said. “And I am excited, because even though Northwestern only just brought in their new dining partner, there are a lot of things that people want to change already.”

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