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The Conspiracy Against Commons

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

Is it really as bad as students make it seem?

A picture of the Salisbury University dining hall at dinner time in the Dorchester Room. Image courtesy of David Bohenick.

Recently, the Dining Hall at Salisbury University has been under fire because of a photo of raw chicken circulating around campus. Photos showing poor quality food and student displeasure continue to make rounds among students and their parents.


Amidst the outcry from students, the SU dining hall remains more successful than ever in terms of budget, quality and operation. This comes to raise the question if students are over-exaggerating their reactions to what’s put on their plate.


The Dining Hall, located in the Guerrieri Student Union on campus, is a self-operating program that costs about $9 million alone to function according to SU's Budget Report for the Fiscal Year of 2023. However, the budget of the service only expands and revenue continues to increase yearly. Despite complaints, statistics appear to improve with time.


According to Director of the Dining Services, Owen Rosten, commons is feeding approximately 500 more students than last year during the lunch rush between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. He also says there are 300 more meal plans than last year and the class of 2027 is the largest to date, but about half of the students with meal plans this year have their plan voluntarily.


This means half of the students with meal plans live off-campus and choose to go to commons. The dining program also had a 5% rate increase from last year. However, when considering inflation, increase in student wages and an increase in utilities expense by 24.8%, this additional cost was minimal compared to other programs.


The main goal of the campus dining hall is to accommodate and cater towards students, even if they have to sacrifice profits. Rosten explains that the OZZI brand takeout trays cost the department almost $6 each but face a 20% obsolete rate. This means 20% of all containers are broken, contaminated, or all-around unusable.


It ends up costing the SU dining department around $15 for each tray but they only charge a one time fee of $10. Although less than 250 students participate in the to-go program today, a huge decrease from the 1,500 students of 2021, commons continues to lose money with every tray given out.


Still, the image of the undercooked chicken breast is all that matters in the minds of students. Rosten, who’s been working in the food business for 50 years including 28 different universities, has responded and accepted responsibility for the incident.


“We had 3 incidents where chicken was undercooked, no excuse for it," he says. "We were in a panic, it got out, it happened."


"Nobody got sick thank God… at the point that incident hit parent’s Facebook, we served close to 75,000 meals and not a single student complained to us, it was all the parents.”


Rosten is proud of the current operating dining program. He urges students to reach out directly to the management that oversees campus dining if they have any issues. “They gotta just tell somebody and we will check every chicken finger we put out, but they didn’t tell us," he explains.


"[The students] send a picture to mom…” He shares that the ratio between parent and student complaints is likely greater than 9-to-1.


“People don’t give us any tolerance, and they shouldn’t, it’s our job to do it right, but parent’s magnify it.”


Owen Rosten (Director of Dining Services) observing the student feedback monitor for commons just outside the kitchen. Image courtesy of David Bohenick.

Dining services wish for more direct student feedback instead of having to discuss most issues with parents. They take the student feedback much more seriously since they’re the ones eating the food. Only it seems students choose to air their complaints on platforms with their peers instead of those that can help.


This raises the concern of a select few using social media to purposefully spread exaggerated examples to paint a negative image of the SU dining hall. This might not only be limited to students.


Rosten shared an anecdote in which he emailed a parent directly in regards to her son’s gluten intolerance. He accepted responsibility for a mislabeled item at the time and created a separate menu for her student.


Inexplicably, she chooses to post his email while redacting certain parts of the response to create a tainted narrative of the situation. All while misspelling his name in her final edit.


There is a big difference between this parent and the students on campus posting images of their food. The students provide photographic evidence of their plate. And while some may over exaggerate the quality, it raises awareness from both parties in terms of what’s going on the plate.


SU student Kenon Brooks shares his issue with paying closer attention to the food that's served to him. "I feel like the money we pay towards our meal plans… we shouldn’t have to deal with mistakes like that,” he says.


Brooks himself was allegedly served undercooked chicken. He reacted by notifying a commons worker. He said the worker observed his plate and would tell him that the chicken was still edible despite its pink interior.


In addition to the undercooked chicken, Rosten accepts responsibility for moldy bread entering the kitchen. The dining staff enforce the notion that they will take action whenever they encounter contaminated food.


“We had 2 instances of moldy bread, which there was no way I could’ve prevented it because, I’ve never seen this in my life, the mold was actually inside the bread, he says. "Usually it’s on the outside, and the date was 2 weeks out… there was no excuse."


"So we pushed back the bread company, we returned everything, now we get more frequent deliveries and we held them accountable to replace all that stuff.”


Dining Hall workers need no prior work experience to get a job at commons. The self operating program will hire anyone, but according to Rosten it's up to them to keep it.


One student spread another image that would go viral around campus. A health inspection legend, used by all inspectors in every county to identify whether a violation is of critical or uncritical importance, was given a caption that reads; ‘the list of codes for commons; checked is good, unchecked is bad.’ The caption insinuates that the dining program violates many health protocols when in fact, it’s a misconstrued guide that has nothing to do with the state of commons.


Typical health inspection guideline with a misleading caption that implies the sheet is related to SU commons (The caption is slightly cut off to keep the original poster anonymous)

The last time the dining hall faced a health inspection was immediately following the undercooked chicken incident. Rosten says that it was dining services that had called the health department.


“We called the health department because we wanted to know if anyone reported foodborne illness," he explains. "Now, you don’t have to call the health department but we were worried."


"As a result they came in and did an inspection and there were no reports of foodborne illness from any healthcare provider or person, I mean we can’t put our students at risk.”


The true results of the health inspection held on September 6th, 2023, shows a reevaluation of the chicken tenders and asserts that commons is serving the chicken correctly. The only blemish on the report is a critical violation for a hot holding food item where the item is unable to maintain a temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, the item was discarded immediately and the dining hall would correct their mistake by the time the inspector left.


Rosten emphasized how he disliked the image this painted for the staff. Owen shared his appreciation for the staff’s effort and work ethic, saying that they go the extra mile to enhance the student’s time at commons.


“We got all these wonderful people here," he says. "They put all this effort in and with a broad brush they all got painted as, ‘our food’s terrible, they do a lousy job,’ that was unfair to them."


"I don’t think it’s fair to insult the good people that work here.”


Rosten speaking to Margaret, a staff member at the Dining Hall. Image courtesy of David Bohenick.

Student complaints around commons will most likely never end, but a more direct engagement between the students and dining hall would prove to be valuable for all parties. The dining department always accepts feedback as they try to provide high quality service while ensuring student safety. There are several methods the students can take to interact with the staff that make their food.


Contacting the upper management or health services directly is appropriate for concerning matters. For less pressing concerns, there are QR codes around the dining hall which allow students to give feedback and monitors above the cafeteria entrance displaying responses from the staff.


Rosten is even preparing meetings to set up designated office hours for students to talk to him directly later this semester. In the meantime, Mark Andrews, also known as Mark from Commons runs the eatatsalisburyu instagram page where he shows what is being served almost daily.


While some students take to social media to voice their unhappiness, many others still enjoy the program. SU student Samantha Verney voiced open support for the commons.


“My friends haven’t said anything negative.” She says, explaining how much she enjoyed the breakfast food.


“It sounds so corny, but it tastes like home.”


The SU dining hall is reportedly a Top 5 collegiate dining program in the nation. This was the result of a survey conducted by the National Association of College and University Food Service (NACUFS) involving 484 different institutions. Rosten continues to vouch for the program.


“I worked in 28 universities, this is the best and most expansive program I’ve ever seen,” he says.


It’ll be interesting to see how commons continues to fare while serving a large student population. They hope to continue to please the students and create a more personable relationship going forward.

 

By DAVID BOHENICK

Staff Writer

Featured images courtesy of David Bohenick



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