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Observer Editorial: On our food inspections

| Friday, September 28, 2018

An open letter to Campus Dining and St. Joseph County Health Department:

We are concerned about a recent update to Notre Dame’s Campus Dining policy. Last week, the South Bend Tribune reported in an article that, at the time of publication, Notre Dame had struck a deal to conduct its own food inspections and keep the reports private. The article mentioned that this agreement with the St. Joseph County Health Department would put Notre Dame in charge of its own food inspections because the understaffed county health department had been having difficulty performing the recommended number of inspections for restaurants and other food establishments. In the original agreement — which is now being renegotiated — the results of these inspections were to be kept private.

We would like to express our concerns regarding Notre Dame’s original attempts to keep the results from the public.

Many positive changes have come from Notre Dame food services recently, and we do not want to discount these efforts. The addition of the app, Tapingo, which allows students to preorder food at many of the restaurants and food establishments on campus has come with a lot of positive responses from students. Notre Dame has also extended dining hall hours by adding a “late lunch” time during which students who get out of class at various times in the late afternoon can now eat a meal before dinner. And, in response to student feedback, Notre Dame has also brought back Grab ‘n’ Go at North Dining Hall.

That being said, while there have been many positive changes, we feel there has been a worrisome lack of transparency from the University’s food services — and this gives us pause, especially in light of the recent deal with the county health services.

In 2015, Notre Dame was ranked No. 9 in Niche’s crowdsourced rankings of best campus food. In under four years, the University has moved to the No. 35 spot. While this change could have occurred for a variety of reasons, we feel we speak for much of the student body when we say we think we have identified two crucial issues that could have had a direct effect on the drop, which we feel Campus Dining has not effectively communicated about with the student body.

The first is that the variety in our dining halls has decreased dramatically in the past four years. While former options like chicken popper bowls, parfait bowls, crepes, carving stations and wing nights that now are available rarely, if at all. However, you can now always find a Mexican food station and a new daily potato bar, which was introduced as a regular station last year and did not use to occur as often. In an interview with The Observer, director of Campus Dining Chris Abayasinghe said the changes have been an attempt to decrease food waste and expand local food options. While we applaud the University’s attempt to expand its sustainability efforts, we believe the exact intentions behind the changes could be more clearly communicated to the student body as a whole.

The second thing we feel could have related directly to the decrease in ranking is the cost associated with eating in the dining hall. While the variety of food has decreased, the cost of a meal plan has not. Depending on a student’s meal plan, eating in the dining hall can cost more than $10 per meal. Off-campus students and visitors to the dining hall in particular might not want to spend this amount when they can go elsewhere for a cheaper meal and wider variety of food.

While there could be valid reasons for both the decrease in variety and the consistently high cost of eating in the dining hall, none of these reasons have been communicated to students, so we are left to speculate.

As students, we feel that, above all, the most important thing is transparency between students and the administration, and that is something we have not been getting from Notre Dame food services. With the possibility of Notre Dame food inspection reports being kept private, there is no way for visitors to the various eateries on campus to know that what they are being served is of good quality or at the very least is safe to be consumed.

The Tribune article prompted many questions. How would these self-inspections be conducted? Will the person conducting the inspections be an outsourced third party, or an employee of Notre Dame?

Abayasinghe made it clear to us that at Notre Dame, we have a University food safety specialist who conducts routine inspections of both Notre Dame and Holy Cross dining facilities independent of the St. Joseph County Health Department already and that “the intent of the agreement was for [the University] to conduct the county’s inspection process and forms and then provide them with copies of [the] inspections.” Abayasinghe assured us that our in-house inspector would look for the same food code requirements to the St. Joseph County Health Department and would ensure that all staff followed through on any violations.

Our meeting however, did not clarify why the records were asked to be kept private. In a town hall meeting this week, executive vice president John Affleck-Graves said the University had asked to keep the inspections private for “various reasons” but did not clarify what those reasons were.

Given that the University will now be in charge of its own inspections, we feel it is crucial that these records be kept public, to ensure Notre Dame be held accountable. While the University has indicated it intends to cooperate with the law, and make records public as required by law, the fact that these records were asked to be kept private in the first place is highly concerning. And in light of what we feel has been a lack of transparency on the part of the University’s food services, we are especially concerned that the original agreement was even considered.

We recognize that this change will help the St. Joseph County Health Department, and we have no issue with utilizing Notre Dame’s services to do our health inspections. We ask that within the renegotiation of this deal, St. Joseph County require that all food inspections be made public. As an interviewee in the Tribune’s article said, “You don’t ask the fox to guard the hen house.”

Sincerely,

The Observer Editorial Board

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