By: Anika Banerjee ’24 (she/her), Staff Writer
“We were told that dining services needed to be taken over to ensure safety during COVID. If that is the case, why won’t they let us rehire our chefs when everything is back to normal?” said Avery Fleeman ‘22, Kitchen Manager of Rusk House. “It feels like they are using the pandemic as leverage to bring about a change they have wanted for some time, which feels manipulative.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an integral part of eating houses, fraternities, and sororities on Davidson’s campus was having the student members and leaders hire their chefs, providing an on-campus alternative to Dining Services. Recently, the Davidson administration informed the President of Patterson Court Council and the individual organization presidents that Vail Commons will be catering their food indefinitely.
This alteration was an unexpected and unwelcome change among the eating houses and IFC organizations. Part of the difficulty with this change has come from insufficient communication between Davidson’s administration and organizations’ leaders.
Andrew Erler ‘22, President of Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity, was unaware of the reasoning behind the alterations, which he found concerning. He believes the college administration is citing COVID-19 as the reason behind removing eating houses and IFC organization’s private chefs, because the College would face too much liability with a personal chef working in a confined kitchen at this time.
“We were simply informed that Commons would be catering to us for next year and beyond. That ‘and beyond’ part really upset a lot of us in the Patterson Court community,” Erler stated. “The fact that this decision was made without allowing any input from the houses, or even myself, especially involving something that directly impacts us, was quite frustrating.”
Numerous eating house members and leaders expressed irritation about the removal of their chefs; not only were they not involved in the discussion, but they also see this abrupt change as disrespectful to their commitments and positions in Patterson Court Council Organization.
In an emailed response, Fleeman said, “Every eating house and fraternity is outraged, but the Davidson administration will not even have a conversation with us. Students are demanding answers and are being met with silence. We have absolutely no voice. We have no power.”
The dining options available through the Patterson Court houses add a level of uniqueness to the Davidson experience. Students involved in these organizations are quite attached to their chefs and enjoy the individuality that comes with being able to self-select the individuals who prepare their food.
Shelly Sinclair ‘22, President of Turner House, said, “Eating houses are a safe haven from being stuck with the monotony of Commons meals. Having special food to look forward to can really make your day.”
Sinclair and Margo Naifeh ‘22, President of Rusk House, also pointed out that eating houses are more than just places to eat and receive high quality food. The meal times themselves are what tie people together, giving them the opportunity to connect on a more personal level.
Erler, Fleeman, Nafeih, and Sinclair all have been disappointed in the quality of food their houses are receiving. According to Fleeman, the food that Rusk receives is often bland and sometimes barely edible.
Matching supply to demand is another real problem for her house keeping in mind that meal time begins at 11:00. “We run out of food often. Today we had falafel for lunch, and when my roommate went to the house at 11:25, it was gone,” Fleeman said. “To be fair, there are some days when we have a ton of leftovers, but that’s part of the problem. When Brendan [the House chef] cooked for us, he knew which meals were the most popular and would make more food on those days.”
Along with the worries of unnecessary waste and unwelcome scarcity, Sinclair believes that future students aren’t going to want to participate in Patterson Court houses.
Prior to Commons’ catering, members were paying $5 for a meal, but now they are paying $6.50, and the quality does not justify the added expense to many.
Another difficulty, Naifeh said, is that members cannot eat inside of their house because of COVID-19 guidelines; following state guidelines makes it hard to expand friend circles and mingle in general.
“We have already seen a crazy amount of member drops, unprecedented across all four houses,” Sinclair said. Normally, members will drop eating houses their senior year, but there is now an alarming number of sophomores and juniors dropping.
Fleeman brought up the role of dues and finances into this change. “The community was a big part of why I joined, but it is hard for me to justify paying high dues just for community.”
Eating house and IFC members alike are having a difficult time motivating themselves and other people to get meals through the houses when the food is subpar and people can’t eat together.
Sinclair, among other students, wants to reopen the discussion on bringing back the personal chefs; she believes that equity among the houses is crucial, and she wants administrators to be receptive of the different needs of the houses.
Sinclair said, “Right now we are working on a petition, and I want to disseminate it to first all of our organizations and then hopefully you whoever else is willing to support, even first years. They deserve to have a voice in this matter because it will affect them the most.”
Jane Guidera ‘22, the President of Patterson Court Council, oversees the sixteen houses and conducts monthly meetings with the presidents of the houses. Guidera heard that the changes were made not only because of concerns for health and safety but also because Davidson administration was worried that some of the kitchen spaces and the training of the chefs was inadequate. They also worried about 20-year-olds overseeing hiring, managing, and in some cases, firing their own personal chefs.
“When I was a first-year, looking at eating houses one of the big conversations was who has the best food, which chef’s the best,” says Guidera, “so while this may be viewed as an equalizer, it also takes away some of the characteristics of each of the houses.”
Richard Terry ‘81, Director of Auxiliary Services at Davidson, spoke to why the Davidson administration made this change. Along with public health concerns, he added, “One thing to keep in mind is that the cooks are independent; they are not tested through the college. We wouldn’t know to what extent they had been exposed. And they would be handling food for large groups of students.”
He also noted how historically, the kitchens within the eating houses are not the most sanitary. In the state of North Carolina, state law does not require the inspection of kitchens in private clubs, a category that eating houses fall under.
Beyond COVID-19, Terry believes that having Commons cater to the houses is important to uphold general health standards. Mike Goode ‘83, the Director of the College Union and Student Activities, seconded Terry’s opinion.
“The decision for Dining Services to step in and manage the food right away and long-term, was a decision made by the college, not by me nor Richard,” Goode said. “Having chefs work for students who run the house in uninspected kitchens has been a liability that we have just lived with.”
Both Goode and Terry understand that the shift to Commons catering is a pretty big change, particularly for houses that felt a close tie between their identities and the food they provided.
“Dining Services have been approached by Connor and Kappa Alpha a little over a year ago, before COVID-19 and actually worked with us to say that they would not like to be handling the food program for their houses any longer,” Terry said. “We figured out about 98 percent of a solution as to how to go about that, and right about then is when COVID-19 struck.”
Terry and Goode recognize that there is a lot still to learn, and they know that the program now is not exactly what it needs to be.
Goode hopes that the future will involve students working closely with Dining Services to figure out how they can best provide for houses in a way that is affordable.
Terry stated, “When we made this change, we said to all the houses, ‘if you have cooks, we certainly could use them, and if they wanted to apply to work for Davidson, we would hire them.’ And that still holds true, really, and I don’t think anyone took us up on that, I believe.”
Terry believes that a benefit of being a chef in these organizations is that there is a sense of autonomy that is not present when working for Davidson Dining Services.
Goode and Terry are hoping to work to find solutions that maintain student safety while also giving them the benefits of an Eating Houses and IFCs.
“Nobody likes change, and we are aware students will be upset because no one enjoys changes, especially when the outcome is unpredictable,” Goode said. “We must prioritize student safety.”