OGDEN- When the Weber State University chapter of the American Association of University Women held a “Na’cho Problem” event to highlight the gender wage gap, Vice President Lauralee Kohl looked for options to have nachos served at the event.
Due to university rules about bringing in outside food, Kohl was forced to cater through Sodexo, the university’s food provider. Kohl says the event cost her group $200, which drained the group’s budget for the year.
“It’s very restrictive for the events that we can hold,” Kohl said. She said her experience at Utah State University was much better. Prices there were much lower for larger portions and higher quality food, Kohl said.
The Signpost conducted a comparison of average catering prices and other food pricing using the online menus of four Northern Utah public four-year universities: Weber State, Utah State, University of Utah and Utah Valley University. It showed while Weber State meal plans are comparable, students and clubs here pay more, sometimes significantly more, to buy items in the on-campus convenience store and to cater events on campus than at the other three universities.
Catering menus across schools can vary in options, making comparisons difficult. However, the average prices of menu items indicate WSU students paying anywhere from 14 percent to 60 percent more for catering items.
The comparison looked at box lunches, breakfast menus and entrees. While menu items across schools are rarely the same, here are some examples: At Utah State University a catered chef’s salad costs $7.50 per person. At Weber State, the same menu item costs $11.59 per person. The University of Utah will cater roasted pork tenderloin at $14.99 per person, while WSU ‘s price for the same item is $19.99.
The contract between Sodexo and WSU requires competitive pricing. It reads, “Retail and catering prices will be competitive with comparable menu items served by local food operators and by other educational institutions.”
Despite the contract Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, Brett Perozzi said his main concern is that meal plans are comparative with other universities.
He said food prices are complex and it’s unfair to compare universities against each other. Each school comes with its own challenges, and schools with higher residential populations can charge less for retail and catering because they are making more off the meal plans.
Jessica Alford, director of operations for Sodexo at WSU, said Sodexo doesn’t see other universities as competition. Students aren’t driving to other universities to buy food, she said. The competition consists of stores that are in a one-mile radius from the campus.
At the 7-Eleven convenience store on Harrison Boulevard, less than a mile from WSU’s campus, a student would pay $1.79 for a 52-ounce fountain drink, while the Quickzone, the on-campus convenience store in the Shepherd Union, charges $2.09 for smaller, 32-ounce drink. Per ounce, that is 90 percent more for the on-campus drink. A can of Pringles potato chips costs $2.49 at the 7-Eleven, while it cost $3.49 at Quickzone.
“It’s comparative in a sense that when you buy it from us, you don’t have to go out to the corner,” said Keith Murray, director of dining services at WSU. “We don’t buy as much volume as they do. We provide a service but we do need to make money.”
A student doesn’t have to go off campus to find a lower price. Just downstairs in the Campus Store, a bottled 20-ounce drink sells for $1.09, while the Quickzone charges $1.79, or 64 percent more. Candy bars at the bookstore run about 89 cents while Quickzone sells them for about $1.39.
The website RateMyProfessors.com recently added a place where students can rate services on campus, including food. With about 250 people responding at each Utah school except UVU, which had 423, Weber State came in last with an average score of 3.1. Utah Valley led the way with a score of 3.8, followed by Utah State at 3.7 and the University of Utah at 3.3.
One of the reasons that Utah Valley and Utah State have lower prices is both institutions run a not-for-profit in-house operation rather than contracting to a service provider. With the goal being to break even, the institutions can charge lower prices.
Alan Andersen, director of dining services at Utah State, said that keeping dining services in house is in line with Utah State’s mission to educate students. “Any time you bring in a contractor, it becomes about profit,” Andersen said.
WSU contracts out its food services to Sodexo, a multi-national provider based in Paris. In its annual report to investors for fiscal year 2013, Sodexo claimed a total operating profit of 1.3 billion Euro ($1.4 billion U.S.). Sodexo has been providing dining services at WSU since 2007. The first 6 percent of profit goes to Sodexo. After that, WSU and Sodexo split the profit 50/50.
WSU’s Perozzi said the decision to outsource was made many years ago. He explained that the university is paying for expertise when it contracts with a private food service provider such as Sodexo.
Sodexo’s Murray says there are deals to be had at Weber State. For example, nothing on the Waldo’s Cheesie Grill menu costs over $5. He said Sodexo made the choice to have everything at the grill priced low in order to provide a value option for students.
Murray added that for catering, there is a non-published student menu that student organizations can get from him that has lower prices. Murray refused to release the prices on the menu to the public.
AAUW’s Kohl said in the four student groups she’s ordered food from she has never been offered the student menu.
Perozzi said students, faculty and staff at every school he has worked for have complained about food service on campus.