In early March, Brandeis students were invited to participate in a decision that would affect student life at the University for years to come. With COVID-19 only beginning to impact campus operations, presentations from four dining vendors competing to earn the next University dining contract took center stage March 4 and 5. Yet in the chaos that ensued in the next weeks, the debate over the future of Brandeis dining fell to the background. According to the Dining Services Request for Proposals website, a new dining contract was supposed to be awarded in April and was set to begin on July 1, but amid the disruption caused by COVID-19, no such announcement has been made. The Justice examined where that leaves the RFP process and the current state of Brandeis dining services for students still on campus.

The RFP process continues

Nearly a year ago, Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stew Uretsky announced in an Aug. 26 email to the Brandeis community that the University would begin the search for a new vendor for the dining program on campus. This Request for Proposals process began in early fall 2019, after the University and Sodexo, the current dining vendor, mutually agreed to end Sodexo’s current 10-year contract three years early, in June 2020, per a Nov. 5 Justice article.

The University gathered community feedback through the middle of the fall 2019 semester, working with consultants from the TMC Group, a consulting group that specializes in higher education dining services, among other areas. The RFP, which lays out what the University wants from the next dining contract, was then developed and released in mid-November, per the Nov. 5 Justice article.

By spring semester, the University had narrowed down their choices to four vendors: Sodexo, Bon Appetit, Harvest Table and Chartwells. These vendors presented their plans for Brandeis dining on March 4 and 5. Up until this point, the RFP process aligned with the University’s planned timeline. However, during mid-March, when the University was set to “Negotiate and Select” the new dining contractor, COVID-19 disrupted every aspect of campus life.

In a June 2 message to the Justice, Union Senator at Large Nancy Zhai ’22 confirmed that the “RFP process is still underway.” She added that she is working with the administration to “communicate students' inputs and ensure our voices are being heard.” Director of University Services Jeff Hershberger declined to comment on the RFP process. The RFP timeline has not been updated online.

Sodexo continues to provide dining services during the summer

A new dining contract was supposed to begin on July 1, but no new contract has been announced, and Sodexo is continuing to provide dining services for students living on campus.

According to Sodexo’s Hours of Operation website, Einstein Bros. Bagels and The Stein are currently open for limited hours, while all other dining locations are closed. Sodexo’s website lists a variety of meal plan options for students living on campus during summer 2020.

Cher Li ’21 told the Justice that she was given the choice between living in Skyline, which she selected, and the Foster Mods during the summer. Skyline residents are required to purchase meal plans for the summer, Li and Juan Bordón ’22, another student currently on campus, both told the Justice. Mods residents, like Bordón, are not required to purchase a meal plan.

Einstein has adjusted its policy, and beginning April 23, students can use a meal swipe for breakfast at the previously points-only location, according to the Sodexo website.

It is not clear under what contract Sodexo is operating this summer. No new dining contract with any vendor has been announced, but no announcement has been made to update Uretsky’s Aug. 26, 2019 announcement that the current Sodexo contract would end on June 30, 2020. Hershberger also declined to comment on what contract Sodexo is operating under currently. Andy Allen, the general manager of Brandeis Dining Services, did not respond to a Justice request for comment on the RFP process or what contract Sodexo is currently operating under.

According to a current Skyline resident who spoke to the Justice on the condition of anonymity, Sherman Dining Hall was open with a limited menu until late May, when dining services switched over to the current system of the Stein and Einstein. The Stein, taking the role that Sherman used to fill, has very limited meal options.

Regardless of the current dining services logistics, all of the students the Justice talked to are either completely or largely avoiding eating at campus dining locations. Bordón explained that cost and lack of variety of foods were his reasons for not using dining services, as well as wanting to have homemade food before returning to dining halls in the fall. The Skyline resident who asked to remain anonymous avoids the Stein and very rarely goes to Einstein, citing the extremely limited options, especially for Kosher meals. The Stein's Kosher option, for instance, is a single, pre-packaged boxed meal, leaving little room for students who want to keep Kosher but have other dietary restrictions. Einstein's three meal swipe sandwich options all contain either dairy or meat.

The two Skyline residents who the Justice spoke to said they rely on items such as take-out, Instacart and meals they can put together in their dorm rooms in place of campus dining. They both also avoid the communal kitchen on the third floor of Skyline. Li, who does not use her meal plan anymore, expressed concern about whether policies designed to maintain cleanliness in the communal Skyline kitchen were being followed. The other Skyline resident said that fellow residents in the kitchen do not always follow social distancing procedures, like mask wearing. 

Looking toward fall 2020, the University's website on campus health and safety measures states, "Dining Services and Sodexo are expanding hours of operations and additional ways to accommodate de-densification in the dining halls by possibly utilizing nearby common spaces." Besides this mention of Sodexo in the dining portion of the University's plans, the July 1 date —  when a new contract was slated to start —  passed without an announcement from the University regarding the RFP process or a new dining contract for fall semester. 

— Editor's Note: This article was updated to include information from the University's Fall 2020 plans announcement.