Higher Ed’s Rocky Reboot

It’s a quarter past noon on a Wednesday at an Indiana University cafeteria, and if you want a burger in the next hour, you’re probably out of luck. Help wanted signs hang around Wright Eatery, a popular spot among freshmen. Several staff members are behind the counter at the burger station flipping patties, scooping tater tots, and placing foil-wrapped meals on a counter for customers to pick up. None are taking in-person orders. Instead, students tap their smartphones to order on Grubhub. There are 74 orders in the queue. A quarter-pounder with cheddar cheese is expected to take between 58 and 68 minutes.

Waits are one problem. Edibility is another. On Instagram and TikTok, students share photos of undercooked meat, bugs in salads, and a blackened patty sandwiched between raw onions and a thin bun. Sometimes dining stations are closed, which has angered students and their families. It has been hard for many to count on three square meals a day from the campus.

Colleges across the country are seeing similar stories play out as they scale up in-person operations after a year of reduced capacity. Supply chains and labor markets are stressed, reflecting local, national, and global issues that have crept onto the quad. The Universities of Wyoming and Michigan are down bus drivers, and Duke University closed a recreational center through 2021. Students, meanwhile, expect their campuses to have snapped back to normal.

Higher education doesn’t always like to think of itself as a business, but when it comes to housing and dining, its students are more like customers. Those amenities are part of the sales pitch, and they account for a significant amount of revenue. Across the country, though, colleges are struggling to keep up their end of the deal with students. Indiana’s freshmen are required by the university to buy meal plans, which cost between $3,800 and $4,800 for the academic year. What students get in return, they say, is a university that over-promises and under-delivers.

“The last thing in the world I thought my daughter was going to have to worry about was where to find food,” Erin Burger told The Chronicle, adding that her freshman daughter is eating about one “decent” meal on campus each day. “This is the bare minimum. We’re turning our kids over to you. We’re putting them in your hands.”

Tensions grew to the point that IU Dining held an online town hall in September with hundreds of frustrated customers. Five administrators fielded concerns and answered questions for about an hour: Where can students find information on dining? Check Instagram. Why are Grubhub orders canceled up to an hour after being placed? We’re working on it. Are reports of food poisoning being addressed? So far there are no findings to support that. What about undercooked food? Our health-inspection team makes rounds regularly.

A long wait for a burger isn’t the fault of one dining hall, one warehouse, one driver’s route, or one vendor. The stressed system hits roadblocks, and often gets through them, every day. But the mismatch between expectations and reality is driving tempers high. Students and their families wonder, shouldn’t colleges have prepared better, before they took our money?

Yes, an administrator in a limestone building in Bloomington could have had clearer foresight, especially because the university knew a record number of first-time students enrolled at the campus this fall. But that wouldn’t have entirely sped up the burger line. The full answer for higher education’s stop-start semester is more complicated. It touches everything from the plastic casing holding the patties to the speed of companies conducting background checks, and even federal debates on the minimum wage.

It all starts in the rolling hills of Birdseye, Ind., 80 miles south of campus.

Dave Fischer is driving his Suburban down a narrow road that cuts through the green acreage of his farm, which has been in his family since the late 1800s. As he drives past black and brown cattle in open fields, he explains the schedule of growing and harvesting food for the the livestock. But the business today doesn’t just sell beef — it also distributes pork, eggs, maple syrup, and other goods from nearby farmers.

Demand for those products is high. Partly that’s because of Indiana University, which is the farm’s biggest customer, said Joseph Fischer, Dave’s son who is the sales manager. Not only is Bloomington’s enrollment up, but the campus is also using Fischer Farms products in more dining halls, Joseph said.

The thin burgers that the farm produces are a staple on campus. The cattle are slaughtered, and in a processing center adjacent to the Fischer Farms office, a machine stamps out the patties one at a time. The beef is packaged and then, in a 38-degree storage room, sorted into boxes for campus kitchens. IU’s orders can account for up to 30 percent of the farm’s sales.

But the campus’s huge orders have brought challenges to Fischer’s business. To meet the demand, the farm had to hire a delivery driver for the Bloomington campus. New employees in order fulfillment handle the extra volume, too. They were brought on in a tight labor market, Dave Fischer said, and salaries are about $5 per hour more than usual.

And, of course, the pandemic poses its own operational challenges. In the fall, a few butchers contracted Covid-19 and couldn’t come into work, Joseph Fischer said. That meant that a smaller number of cattle could be processed at a time. For several weeks, when the Fischer Farms delivery driver came to pick up the meat products that were headed to Indiana University, not everything was ready. So the driver would take a partial order to Bloomington in the morning — which left either Joseph Fischer or his grandparents having to make another three-hour round trip to campus with the rest of the goods later in the day.

If a supply chain is a series of interconnected links, then a glitch or adjustment in one spot can cause ripple effects up and down the line.

Joseph Fischer knows that the stakes are high. Students need to eat. One student is his cousin, a freshman. She told him that she has struggled to get meals between classes because of long lines. “If you’re sending your kid to school,” he said, “you want them to be eating well.”

The family has made small adjustments to operations for campus orders. For example, meat products are generally sealed with an airtight Cryovac vacuum before they leave Fischer Farms. Now, employees stack burger patties in clear bags, separated by thin sheets. It’s easier for campus chefs to get the product out of the packaging and onto the grill.

On a Tuesday afternoon, the products going to IU wait on one side of the chilly room, where even in mid-September, employees in warm jackets and winter hats load boxes. The next morning, the driver will pick up the products and drive them to a central warehouse in Bloomington.


Illustrations by Jan Feindt for The Chronicle

In the predawn darkness, vehicles pull up to loading docks at a warehouse a few miles from Indiana University’s iconic Sample Gates. Vendors in box trucks and cargo vans unload their goods before pulling away. Big white trucks operated by the university take their place. IU’s trucks will pack up food for individual dining halls, distributing it across campus. The choreography happens every day, with routes detailed on a whiteboard inside the warehouse.

The warehouse, down one staff member compared with before the pandemic, stocks far more than just Fischer Farms patties. Pallets of nonperishable items — Coca-Cola products, Chex Mix, eco-friendly takeout containers — are sorted by the dining hall to which they’re headed. Items are arranged the day before delivery, said Stewart Cutshall, the associate director of business operations.

In a sign of the broader supply-chain challenges, this semester, vendors’ trucks have shown up in the morning with one or two products missing, Cutshall said. When that happens, IU needs to look for a substitute for the dining-hall menus, typically planned in advance.

Sometimes no substitutes are available. Say you’re in a dining hall and want to wash down your burger with a soda. You might walk up to one of the sleek Freestyle machines — touchscreen dispensers of dozens of products from Coca-Cola, the university’s exclusive vendor for beverages. You would normally be able to choose among 29 types of soda or juice. But on a recent day in Bloomington, just 13 had been stocked. The company told The Chronicle that it has worked with its supply chain to address challenges brought on by the pandemic and that it is “committed” to serving customers.

Other parts of the supply chain are getting pinched, too. Two of IU’s distributors, Gordon Food Service and Sysco Corp., get food from domestic and international suppliers and manufacturers. Established strategies, like forecasting demand based on past patterns, have proven unreliable.

“There’s challenges in getting the amount we need and understanding what our customers are going to buy,” said Trace Ruback, Gordon Food Service’s director of sales for noncommercial entities, which includes hospitals and universities. “It’s more of a scramble at this point, to fulfill menu items. … It’s been a scramble since, really, March 2020.”

The vulnerability of the supply chain isn’t just about the goods or products being delivered. Interruptions can be caused by other glitches, like broken equipment. A custom-made Alto-Shaam oven was damaged on the way to campus, where it would have been installed in McNutt, a newly renovated dining hall. Supply-chain issues meant that replacing it would have taken 16 weeks, instead of less than one. The university decided to use a different machine, but the equipment was a different size, so IU needed to change the physical space to install it. The university also had to wait for an inspector, which took additional time, said Lukas Leftwich, head of residential programs and services.

That delay served as another reminder: The supply chain relies on people — to drive trucks, stock warehouses, and take orders. The pandemic pushed many people out of those roles. Others left to care for family members, and some got sick or changed jobs. The nation’s colleges and universities employed about half the number of food-service workers in August relative to the average for that month from 2015 to 2019, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In a recent SEC filing, Sysco pointed to the tight labor market for drivers in particular. The company is trying to recruit high-school graduates to become warehouse employees, and it hopes these people will enroll in a new “Sysco Driver Academy.” Sysco is also spending on hiring, with referral and retention bonuses.

Tyson Foods, one of Sysco’s suppliers and a major processor of chicken, has faced similar challenges. Absenteeism and turnover have been major problems, Donnie King, Tyson’s president and chief executive, said in an August earnings call. In addition to raising wages, the company is opening child-care facilities and medical clinics at some plants to recruit and retain more staff.

“Essentially,” King said, “it takes us six days to get five days’ worth of work.”


Indiana University isn’t immune from the staffing shortages, either. As the campus returned to in-person operations, many people quit, Leftwich said. Some feared working with tens of thousands of students, he said, and others may have been driven out by the university’s vaccine requirement. Many people who had worked for decades on campus, including in dining, retired. “The gaps they left behind are big.”

The scope of the losses became clear to Leftwich as another data point was emerging: More new freshmen than ever wanted to become Hoosiers. The new class in Bloomington is about 9,500, according to September estimates. The surge followed a year in which the overall student headcount had declined in Bloomington.

Then came another curveball: A smaller number of those students wanted to work, Leftwich said. At this point, he’s not sure why, but he ticks off a few ideas. Perhaps there is a “market expectation” for a $15 hourly wage, thanks to federal advocacy on the topic. Starting hourly wages in IU dining halls for no-experience, part-time student employees is $10.40. Perhaps students want to focus on their education after a long stretch of disrupted learning. Perhaps they fear getting sick. An outside staffing agency was having “a real hard time” when the university approached it, Leftwich said. The campus has also tried to hire displaced refugees, but transportation and visa-processing have been issues.

Unlike many other campuses, the university does not outsource campus dining to a third-party company like Sodexo or Aramark. It also did not furlough dining employees during the pandemic, Leftwich said.

In late September, a campus spokesman said the university aims to employ 1,200 part-time staff members, both students and non-students, and there are about 500 vacancies. The full-time dining work force is typically about 300 people, and there are 83 vacancies. Each of these people plays a role on campus — taking orders, washing dishes, preparing ingredients. Existing staff are stretched thin.

It’s not just in dining. Advertisements for driving jobs are plastered on university shuttle buses. And IU and other Big Ten universities are struggling to hire live-in housing workers, typically an entry-level position in student affairs, Leftwich said.

Typically, IU hires about 80 percent of the applicants for student resident-assistant positions, he said, but this year the university hired every person who expressed interest. Some of those who were hired have already left their roles, and the university needs to reopen the search process to find more talent, Leftwich said.

Another chokepoint: When someone applies for a job at IU, the university must run a background check. But delays at HireRight, the vendor that IU uses for the service, have extended for weeks, Leftwich said. Many organizations are hiring, increasing demand. (HireRight did not respond to a request for comment.)

The university also faces competition in hiring from restaurants in town. In late September in Bloomington, nearly every restaurant had a sign on the door. Nick’s English Hut had changed its hours. Noodles & Company would only take online orders. “We do NOT have the staff,” a sign read. “Please be polite to our team, as they showed up today to ensure you get your food FASTER and still HOT.”

Parents and students wonder, Why doesn’t IU just raise its wages? The university is in the final stages of doing so, said Chuck Carney, a spokesman. But it might not solve the problem, Leftwich said. First, city restaurants could bump up their salaries even further to compete against the university, where wage data are public. And second, the managers of hourly employees may feel frustrated that their wages are roughly equivalent, he said.

Despite the challenges, Leftwich said, the university brings on a few more staff members every day. Each time a new person starts, the campus examines where plugging them in would yield the most capacity.

Some stations are closed when current staff levels cannot support full operations. Many people are pitching in beyond their job descriptions. One day in late September at the Lantern, a pan-Asian-inspired restaurant, a woman cleaned a countertop. It wasn’t a new staff member. It was Rachael McAleer, director of retail dining.


The long wait times for meals this fall have been exacerbated by another culprit: Grubhub.

During the pandemic, Grubhub minimized contact for safe operations. Students logged onto the application, selected from a list of open dining halls and food stations, and chose the dish they wanted to eat. The application, linked to their meal plan, told them when the order was ready for pickup.

Several dining locations still use the app, and the campus plans to keep it through the academic year. The service means that some dining stations do not need to staff cashiers. And it’s a service that many students continue to want as they’ve grown accustomed to the ease of on-demand ordering during the pandemic.

Because fewer food stations than anticipated have been open, though, virtual lines are long. At the beginning of the semester, the app didn’t turn away orders, even when hundreds of people had submitted them at once. That meant some lines stretched for hours; during a September morning, even after that problem was fixed, an online order for a small black coffee took 40 minutes to be completed. A Grubhub spokesperson told The Chronicle that the company aims to prevent technical issues, but when they occur, “we resolve them quickly and with as little interruption as possible.” IU has already paid for the service — covering the fees that Grubhub adds to transactions.

About a month into the semester, Hoosier students have patched together workarounds to get food. Some, like Jayden McMullen, a sophomore, have switched from Grubhub to in-person ordering, which can move faster. Others, like Jimmy Malony, a sophomore, place a Grubhub order during class, knowing it will take time to complete. Kendal Knosp, a freshman, spends a few hundred dollars a month on groceries in addition to the meal plan so that she can always eat.

Sometimes, students order from a few stations at once and pick up whatever is ready first. That means that many completed orders that are paid for are abandoned on countertops, never to be eaten. A sign announces that after two hours, the staff will throw away the food because it’s no longer safe to consume.

The university has taken steps to manage the situation. While it is not considering refunds for the semester, it has allowed students to downgrade more expensive plans. Several dining stations have transitioned from Grubhub to in-person ordering this fall. And campus leaders are trying to nudge students into getting their food at all-you-can-eat dining halls, including McNutt, the facility that was just renovated for nearly $24 million. There, students can order in person, not online.

It takes just minutes to swipe into the facility, with its bright lights and high ceilings. There you’ll find different stations with pre-plated, ready-to-eat food like vegetable lo mein, mushroom sliders, and beef nachos. One station serves allergen-free food. At many stations, there’s not even an in-person line.

Indiana University has lowered some pricing at McNutt to try to drive traffic to the facility and away from dining halls that still operate using à-la-carte or Grubhub ordering. When those virtual lines are long, Leftwich said, students falsely believe food is scarce, when there is plenty in other locations.

But it’s unclear how quickly students will take up this new system. Sophomores spent last year ordering exclusively on Grubhub, and they have told freshmen that’s how things go. A survey in early 2021 asked IU students what factors were most important in choosing where to eat. Quick service was important to more than 85 percent of respondents. Nearly as many students wanted their food to be customizable and able to be purchased to-go. Only about a third thought an all-you-can-eat dining location was important. The fall 2021 semester is neither the fall 2019 semester nor the fall 2020 semester. Campus leaders, staff members, and students are creating new patterns and norms every day.

Some freshmen who spoke to The Chronicle said they didn’t have time — or interest — to graze at an all-you-can-eat facility, or even wait for food in person. One junior, Colin Prince, now looks back at his freshman year and wonders how much time he wasted waiting in line in person. Now, he said, he can be productive while online food orders are being prepared.

Covid-19 has changed people in other ways, too, according to campus employees. There is less patience for when things go wrong. People are quick to post their complaints online, eager for sympathy and affirmations from peers, instead of filing feedback with staff members.

One day in September, Maya Warner, a freshman, bit into an apple that she had ordered to-go. The flesh was brown and rotten. It was the latest frustration she had experienced with Grubhub. Earlier in the week, she had waited for an hour, only to have her order canceled. She posted the photo of the apple on Twitter.

Tired of the frequent waits, Warner now orders a few meals at once to keep food in her dorm for the week. She also regularly buys groceries or orders food from local restaurants. “It’s just so frustrating,” she said, “to not eat whenever I need to.”

Recently, she applied to transfer to another college closer to home. The dining experience was one big reason why. She understands that the campus is short-staffed and that enrollment is high, and sometimes she feels bad for complaining. But the experience has fallen short of what she had anticipated.

“It’s definitely not what I was expecting, especially for IU,” Warner said. “Tuition is so expensive, and it’s such a nice school.”

— Dan Bauman contributed to this report.

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