Change worries students: Food price hikes raise concern, reflect overlapping factors

| News Editor

For students wondering if the price of a sandwich is 5 cents higher than it was last year—no, they’re not crazy.

Student concern over high campus food prices has mounted as the prices continue to rise while portions meanwhile remain the same or decrease. A recent post on the “Overheard at WashU” Facebook group, on which a student posted a picture of a peer lambasting Dining Services for an undersized portion of Southern Fried Chicken, went viral with more than 450 likes in the past week.

“This is my third year here, and I’ve been on the same plan each year, and it just keeps getting me less and less,” junior Sydney Kapp said. “As someone who makes frequent late-night [Bear’s Den] runs, paying $5 for a box of mozzarella sticks—a dollar per stick—just seems like way too much.”

Many students feel that the prices of food on campus are higher than desirable.

“I never run out of meal points, but as far as good prices, they’re reasonable except for Paws & Go on the [South 40], [where] they’re absurd,” sophomore RJ Petrella said.

But staff say a recent rise in the minimum wage Washington University pays dining staff, combined with dedication to buying local and other constraints, make it hard if not impossible to compete with other vendors.

Dining Services employees get benefits similar to those in higher management, which is uncommon for the restaurant and food industry. The minimum wage for University workers was also increased recently to $10 an hour.

Nadeem Siddiqui, resident district manager for Dining Services, added that price increases factor in more than just the cost of food, which makes up about 40 percent of the pricing to the dollar. The rest of that money goes toward external costs, such as the cost of labor.

Another factor that affects labor cost is the high number of hours that dining services locations stay open.

“We’re one of the schools that’s open the most, 180 hours a day when you combine all the locations on campus, and the cost of convenience goes into pricing,” Siddiqui said.

Danforth Campus Dining Services Manager Paul Schimmele said that for more popular products, such as a slice of pizza, Dining Services will usually resist raising the price too high, even if market prices demand a price increase.

“It’s a popular item with students, so we especially try to make sure that we don’t increase too much there,” he said. “We look at the top sellers and just try to figure out where we want to be careful not to have that sticker shock.”

Bon Appetit and Dining Services come together once a year to change prices in order to keep up with changing market prices. Siddiqui explained the reasoning behind coming up with an average price increase for the year and maintaining it rather than mirroring the changing market prices throughout the year.

“It’s not good for students to fluctuate pricing in that way, and the chefs work very closely with the market to make sure that the food cost stays stable,” he said.

University food prices also suffer from the school’s dedication to accommodating special diets such as vegetarian, vegan, kosher and Halal. It also pays more because it is purchasing food in small quantities, particularly for Paws & Go and the Millbrook Market.

April Powell, director of marketing and communications for Dining Services, explained that the University lacks the kind of buying power that a large entity like Schnucks has, and that affects food prices.

“We don’t have the same availability of buying power that lowers those costs, and we’re not buying that kind of volume, specifically for Paws & Go or the market,” she said. “That’s something that I think a lot of people understand but don’t remember.”

Powell stressed that Bon Appetit’s goal when it comes to pricing is transparency.

“None of the pricing structures are a secret. We don’t want the perception to be that it is,” Powell said. “If you have a question about anything, especially when it comes to pricing, we will tell you.”

Siddiqui explained that although a lot goes into determining food prices each year, Dining Services’ overall goal is to give students the best food and best value for their buck.

“We’re here for students, and we want to make sure we provide a pricing model that works for them and still gets them the food quality and expectation they have,” he said.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.