It’s a challenging job to feed thousands of students every day, three times a day, for a whole academic year. Student dining at any higher education institution is a touchy subject, with a variety of complaints, both legitimate and illegitimate, coming from students. Even with plenty of staff on hand and enough physical food resources, to handle such an extreme volume is difficult enough without the COVID restrictions Hope College is currently facing. Restructuring based on student health only adds to this task, and despite hard work by the staff, it’s no secret that many students this year are disappointed with how the measures have affected their options. In Phelps Dining for example, the options available to students are limited to a temporary station set up beside the breakfast/pastry section, The Globe, fruits and vegetables near the salad bar, and the Deli and Market” section (which serves salads, soup, and sandwiches between 1:30pm and 5pm.) Having extremely limited indoor seating also incentivizes students to go outside, where distance restrictions may be knowingly or unknowingly broken.
However, one side of the dining services situation that most students are not aware of is the brewing discontent among employees and Hope’s third-party dining services contractor, Creative Dining Solutions. The Anchor interviewed 51-year-old Michigan native Mark Ludwig, who graduated from Michigan State with a degree in Environmental Issues and a short-course degree in grass-based dairy farming from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Mr. Ludwig previously ran for Michigan State House in 2018, and is now running for Drain Commissioner. Mr. Ludwig is currently employed within dining services as a pantry chef. His interest in politics has, however, served a unique and important purpose within dining services, as he is now seeking to form a union of dining services workers.
Mr. Ludwig claims that the effort to unionize has been almost wholly on his part, calling it his “baby” and recognizing that “not a ton of people are involved at this point.” He claims that the break structure had been changed measurably, with the most significant change being the reduction of meals allotted from two to one.
This was an unpopular decision, and Mr. Ludwig points to two arguments against this decision: “Number one, it seems like a kind of a poorly-timed decision, just from a cultural perspective. There’s so many things that have changed with this COVID situation that messing around with the breaks seemed excessive.” The second argument is of pragmatism; the lack of a designated, Hope-provided lunch will lead to issues of hunger and workplace vigor. Mr. Ludwig says that it was both bad for the employees and could create risk with COVID measures. “What I really fear is that [this] leads people to snack on the production floor, which is not allowed. As I pointed out to management; people are animals, and if they’re standing in front of food all day long and they’re hungry…some are just plain going to have something to eat.”
Mr. Ludwig, during the interview, was noticeably level-headed regarding the situation. When asked about what other changes that management within Creative Dining Services has made, he remarked that the elimination of family meals was reasonable and intuitive, as family meals violates the idea of limiting COVID transmission by introducing outsiders into Hope dining. Another change which Mr. Ludwig does not blame management for is the fact that the labor has become more repetitive and manual, with lots of heavy lifting and packaging due to the change in dining structure and a 13% reduction in staffing which has not yet been filled. He credits dining for rolling back much of those jobs but he stressed that the work is more physically-demanding than the work of last year: “You feel like you’re running out of calories by the early afternoon.”
Returning to the topic of why the second meal has been discontinued, Mr. Ludwig had this to say: “Some of it has to do with management’s priorities. I’ve gotten conflicting answers on particularly why [the] second meal has been eliminated [and] I was refused an answer on how much money that’s saving. That’s said to be proprietary between Creative Dining Services, which is the contractor that actually makes the food, and Hope College.” Mr. Ludwig claimed that, from his own estimates, the measure would not save money, and thus the decision seems arbitrary in his opinion. Mr. Ludwig additionally estimates that the college would not be saving money due to the decreased variety of food options because of how expensive the packaging is. Indeed, it stands to reason that much of the budget saved in terms of variety would be put toward increasing the volume of the remaining options.
Mr. Ludwig noted that efforts to establish the union have slowed, after a constructive meeting with management that resulted in more leniency and availability for water breaks. There does appear to be tension remaining between management and staff, but it appears the hostility in these negotiations and conversations is minimal. Nonetheless, Mr. Ludwig remains committed to the working conditions of the “frontline” staff: “You know, I just think frontline staff is not the place where you tighten up.” He claims that the Safety Commission has not been involved in these discussions at all, and that is something he would like to see changed.
At the time of this publishing, The Anchor has not yet received a comment from Creative Dining Services in response, however we are aware that one is being developed. This is a developing story, and we strongly encourage our readers to check for an update to the situation.