Downer changes continue this year

Emily Passey

Last year, Downer Commons announced that changes had been made. Students saw a physically improved Downer with new paint and artwork, making the entire experience a little nicer, and also a few new menu items including ethnically diverse foods.
In an effort to make Downer more student-friendly, new signs designated foods as vegan or vegetarian.
Despite these changes, senior Corin Howland feels that the quality provided at the main eatery on campus has not improved.
Howland has compiled his own list of three years’ worth of complaints, including isolated incidents such as discovering an insect and a large piece of plastic in his food to more “epidemic” problems such as food tasting of cleaning solvents and finding rancid milk in the milk machines.
Howland’s complaints also encompass some vegetarian issues. Howland notes that often, the soup labeled vegetarian is actually made using chicken broth. Upon asking staff, Howland has discovered that they readily admit this, not seeming to see the misnomer. Also, he once took a burger that was labeled as vegetarian only to discover it was actually meat.
Though many of Howland’s concerns stem from his vegetarianism, Howland says that he is most concerned with “food purity and nutrition,” feeling that there may even be possible health risks involved.
Two years ago, Howland attempted a petition to make the meal plan voluntary. In this way, students may choose if and when to go to Downer. Howland believes that many students would still remain on the meal plan because of the convenience.
At the time, Howland met with then-Director of Dining Services Lynn Hagee. He felt that her response to proposed changes was, “Don’t even try.”
Howland also said that students have met with chef Robert Wall to speak about the way that most vegetable dishes were cooked in butter, making them unavailable to vegan students. Wall was reluctant to abandon the long tradition of using butter when cooking vegetables.
Director of Dining Services Patrick Niles, beginning his second year at Lawrence, echoes every concern of Howland’s. Niles speaks passionately of the changes in Dining Services and emphasizes that there are a multitude yet to be made.
Niles says that he is aware of student needs. “This year we made a concerted effort” towards change based on last year’s student responses, he says. Vegetarian options were added in the A line as well as at Lucy’s. “I think we’re doing what we feel is right to accommodate these students,” Niles says.
Niles reports that Dining Services is constantly making changes for the better. Last year, the lead Dining Service staff members were ServSafe certified and food safety is demanded of every staff member.
Niles has personally never seen any complaints about contaminants in food and feels that if contaminants are ever a problem, students must immediately voice concerns in order to immediately solve the problem.
Dining Services is really “the students’ dining service” says Niles. “I am not satisfied yet,” he says of Dining Services’ attempts to please LU’s population.
“Nutrition is a huge concern for students,” says Niles. He notes that in today’s society, where child obesity and poor eating habits run rampant, proving nutrition is a responsibility for the university.
This past summer, Dining Services acquired an inventory and menu management system that will eventually allow them to provide the nutritional information online for every menu item.
As for cooking with butter, Niles responds that Dining Services is discussing this issue at length and planning on doing all they can to provide options. In mass food production, butter is typically used as a holding ingredient, which also enhances taste. Niles realizes that it is unhealthy and off-limits to vegans so is attempting to break away from this traditional mode of thinking.
The labeling of vegan and vegetarian items is also an issue that Niles readily acknowledges. “We aren’t doing a very good job with that right now,” he says. He says, however, that is it is a problem that is currently being addressed.
Niles believes that the idea of a voluntary meal plan is interesting and is something that Dining Services has talked about in the past. They have also toyed with the idea of a la carte service, mostly because of food waste issues. Niles sees both positives and negatives associated with an a la carte option, but hasn’t ruled out bringing the option to Downer.
Barely a week into a new term, Niles is anxious to hear more feedback and feels that because of the five-week menu plan, it is hard to tell how students feel thus far. Niles says that he adheres to an “open-door policy” and encourages students to bring their concerns directly to him.
Last year, Niles went to the Student Welfare Committee, of which he is an advisor, with a complete proposal for a University Dining Service Advisory Committee. This committee would consist of interested and varied students who would do such things as secret shop various products and advise the Dining Services management according to student needs, desires and concerns. This proposal was, however, dismissed at the time.