May 7, 2013

Half baked

Short-term fixes clearly not sufficient as dining hall health concerns continue to resurface.

The recent health inspection failures at Bartlett and Cathey Dining Commons one and two weeks ago, respectively, have been called “absolutely unacceptable” by UChicago Dining. The University is addressing the failures with additional cleaning crews and pest control treatments to correct for rodent droppings in food preparation areas, according to the Dining Web site’s FAQ page. But prompt action does not always mean effective action. After the temporary five-day closure of Cathey Dining Commons during fall quarter, the FAQ made similar promises—that the University would act swiftly to increase the effectiveness of cleanings, the frequency of inspections, and the outlets for student input—only to have problems recur. When it comes to the food source for about half of undergraduates, administrators must work to find a sustainable method of ensuring safe health practices long term.

UChicago Dining has already taken steps to show its commitment to solving the problem. Last week, the Maroon reported that UChicago had been searching since Cathey’s fall closure for an external health inspector to no avail. Dining announced yesterday that it has initiated an external review process with National Everclean Services, to be completed by the end of the academic year. The implementation of an external review process shows that the University is prepared to hold itself to a higher standard. Still, it was only spurred to action after the second widely publicized health inspection in less than a year, even though both UChicago Dining and Aramark, a large-scale food service company, should be experts in cleanly operating a collegiate dining facility.

If UChicago Dining aims to cultivate a culture of community in the dining halls, its oft-stated goal, then sanitary food must be its top priority—not occasionally, but constantly. Its moves to put into place additional University oversight in dining halls and contract an external health inspector are good first steps that mark a break from its prior responses. However, both the University and Aramark’s recurring failure to meet standards of basic health indicates that prolonged external review should continue beyond this academic year. A long-term contract for an external reviewer to provide regular and transparent reports on our dining halls would prevent infractions like those that prompted the University to close Cathey in the fall and caused Cathey and Bartlett to fail this spring. Hundreds of students have also signed a petition to get the University to cancel its contract with Aramark, believing that it is the root of the problem. If the University finds that this is the case, it should not shy away from the long-term solution: a new food service provider.

Whatever the results of the external review, they will only be as useful as the steps taken to correct them. Admittedly, the level of complexity and variety of food service in large dining halls places all three dining halls in the “high-risk” health category, according to Chicago Department of Public Health standards. But this designation should not be viewed as an excuse; rather, it should give Aramark and UChicago Dining—and us, their patrons—cause to remain on high alert and to have high expectations. The University is right to call repeat health inspection failures unacceptable. We encourage administrators to focus on maintaining sanitation in the dining halls over time, rather than repeatedly devising ad-hoc solutions.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.