Last semester at Texas A&M, millions of dollars were left on the table when thousands of meal plans expired at the end of the semester. Freshmen and sophomores forced to buy food from a private vendor are particularly upset with what they feel is wasted money.

It's not just students who are adjusting to a new way to dine on campus. A&M administrators and employees of Chartwells, the private company that took over dining in 2012, are still making changes to one of the largest outsourcing contracts at a public university. Last semester was the first time that Aggie underclassmen living on campus were forced to buy Chartwells' meal plans comprised of individual meals, called meal trades, and dining dollars, which act like gift cards.

An assessment by The Eagle of that semester found that more than one out of every five meals purchased, which expire at the end of the semester, went unused. That's about $2.7 million in unclaimed meals purchased by Aggies or their parents. The Chartwells data, obtained by The Eagle through Texas A&M, shows that 9,002 students purchased $11.8 million worth of meals. Texas A&M requires on-campus freshmen and sophomores to purchase a Chartwells meal plan, meaning if all 7,650 on campus did so, then 85 percent of business came through the mandate.

Chartwells representatives said expiring meals at the end of each semester is part of their business model and is an industry norm. A spokeswoman said the reasons for this vary, but include a large number of students leaving at the end of the semester, administrative hurdles and forecasting problems when planning for renovations and improvements.

The price of the meal plans range from $1,240 a semester plus tax, for 119 meal trades, 12 guest passes and 100 dining dollars, to $2,090 per semester plus tax for 300 meal trades, 30 guest passes and 400 dining dollars. There are four plans, each with folksy A&M names -- Howdy, Fish, Gig 'Em and Reveille. The meal trades are predetermined combinations of food and drink and can be used at select on-campus locations. The students can use four meal trades per day and are restricted to one trade per meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night.

The dining outsourcing is championed by A&M System Chancellor John Sharp and is a piece of a multimillion dollar outsourcing contract to North Carolina-based Compass Group USA that also privatized Texas A&M landscape management, custodial services and building maintenance. Sharp said the purpose of the outsourcing is to save money from non-education related tasks and redirect it back into the classroom. The mandate that freshmen and sophomores who live on campus purchase meal plans, which will eventually be phased in to include juniors and seniors, was promulgated in 2010 by now departed university president R. Bowen Loftin. Officials said dining lost $1 million per year before the decision was made.

Although the outsourcing and requirement that students purchase meal plans were rolled out simultaneously, university administrators have repeatedly stressed that the changes are independent. A&M's contract with Compass Group USA does not mention mandatory meal plans.

'Grease on cardboard'

Freshman Jonathan Weeks bought the largest plan possible at 300 meal trades his first semester in College Station. In December, about 120 of those, or $615 worth, expired.

"That [money] just goes away -- they're taking it and I'm not getting anything for my money," Weeks said. "You look at your account and, 'Oh my God,' there's so many left over and that's so much money and you realize that Chartwells isn't going to give you anything back."

Students don't use their trades for a number of reasons, Weeks said. They get tired of eating in the same places, want to use meals during time-restricted periods and that students adjusting to college life will sometimes prioritize studying or socializing over food. He said students, especially freshmen, should have been informed better about how the meal plans could be used.

"The quality of the pizza and pasta isn't great -- the pizza tastes like grease on cardboard," Weeks said. "So, it's not like we're getting some top-notch food. I talk to my friends at Baylor and Texas Tech and UT and they tell me about the food they have on campus with options and good food and it's a stark contrast."

Freshmen Rachel Rosenberg purchased about 100 meals, or $680 worth, that she didn't use. She originally bought the cheapest meal plan but decided to upgrade to the third largest a few weeks into the semester after talking it over with her parents, who paid for it. They thought she would need more meals, but by the end of the semester she said she was giving them away to friends, and even complete strangers. Unlike Weeks, Rosenberg said the quality of the food was fine.

She said she didn't use the meals because on-campus eateries didn't always accept the meal trades for the type or combination of food she wanted to eat. Rosenberg said crossing campus to get to a place that would accept the type of meal she was looking for was sometimes problematic.

"[My parents] aren't super mad about it -- it's not a huge deal," Rosenberg said. "It was just deceiving. There was no opportunity to fix it when we realized we got too big of a plan ... Something a little bit more flexible would have been so nice because $600 is a lot of money. That's a couple hundred cups of coffee or all the music you could ever want on iTunes."

Both Weeks and Rosenberg dropped to the plan with the least amount of meals this semester. The students were united in their frustrations with dining, but split on what exactly they wanted from A&M or Chartwells. Some want Texas A&M to roll back the mandatory requirement and others see it as a safety net.

"It has been probably the most talked about thing on campus consistently since fall semester," said Student Body President Reid Joseph of the dining changes. "We get emails. We hear students talking on campus. We get phone calls from parents and students alike. It is something everyone is very aware of."

Joseph said he appreciates Chartwells' loosening of some restrictions last semester and the infrastructure upgrades. Still, he said, the amount of money in unredeemed meals is significant.

"I know a lot of students, like myself, are funding our own education and every dollar counts," Joseph said. "I know a lot of students who work two part-time jobs and are full-time students and $600 is a substantial amount."

Joseph said he is going to meet with Interim University President Mark Hussey in the next few weeks to talk about dining pricing and quality issues and to hopefully get some changes made for the fall.

Change on the menu

Top Texas A&M administrators say more changes are coming.

"Mandatory meal plans are not tied to the outsourcing of dining services and those issues are separate," said Hussey in an emailed statement. "I have already started to engage student leadership as well as members of my administrative team on the question of mandatory meal plans for students. I will look into the issues associated with mandatory meal plans and then determine an appropriate course of action."

Chancellor Sharp similarly gave his first response to the negative student feedback.

"I fully support Dr. Hussey's initiative to offer various dining options to our students for the fall semester of this year," Sharp said in a prepared statement.

Chartwells representatives were not available for interviews. A Compass Group USA spokeswoman said questions for the company needed to be submitted in writing.

"At Texas A&M students are able to rollover unused dining dollars from fall to spring if they have a spring plan and the dining plans start at just one meal per day," said Chartwells spokeswoman Gina Capetanakis in an emailed statement. "In addition, unlike most universities, our meal trade options are abundant throughout campus and have very few restrictions, making it very easy for students to not have unused meals should they so desire."

The company pointed out the changes it made in the fall semester, such as opening eateries on the north side of campus for longer periods during the weekends. Chartwells received more than 5,200 responses to a fall student survey launched after initial complaints.

"The survey results also led to several dining plan policy changes throughout the fall 2013 semester, each of which remains in effect this semester; this includes additional meal trades, weekly meal rollover and the elimination of meal trade zones," Capetanakis wrote.

B.J. Crain, A&M's vice president for finance and administration, described dining services as still evolving and responsive to student input.

"We're in the second year of this partnership and we've seen a lot of improvements over time, especially this fall when they brought in their new resident director," Crain said. "This is all new to us, so last year we had an annual review with them ... For now, going forward we plan to do those semester by semester."

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(32) comments

ftw

The university claims they want the university to be more efficient to control cost for students and parents, and would not allow tuition increases for several years. Yet it is somehow no problem to charge them for something they will never receive. And even worse, let a private company keep that money.

I have trouble believing it is legal to charge someone for a service, and then if they don't use part of it, there is no way to receive a refund for the unused amount. And while one parent said it was "It was just deceiving. There was no opportunity to fix it when we realized we got too big of a plan ... Something a little bit more flexible would have been so nice because $600 is a lot of money. That's a couple hundred cups of coffee or all the music you could ever want on iTunes." Actually it sounds more like theft, and I can guarantee you if the roles were reversed where Chartwells or the university provided food but received no payment, there would be criminal charges filed.

The university claims they outsourced various services, including dining, "Sharp said the purpose of the outsourcing is to save money from non-education related tasks and redirect it back into the classroom." Then why not take that money and put it in the classroom?

They talk about how smoothly things are going, yet the only way you can submit questions or file a complaint is to submit them in writing. Why is there no phone number or email address where concerns and complaints can be sent? "Chartwells representatives were not available for interviews. A Compass Group USA spokeswoman said questions for the company needed to be submitted in writing."

This article mentions that freshmen and sophomores were "forced" to purchase meal plans. Yet the university clams there was no plan in place, "Although the outsourcing and requirement that students purchase meal plans were rolled out simultaneously, university administrators have repeatedly stressed that the changes are independent. A&M's contract with Compass Group USA does not mention mandatory meal plans."

My Observation

It sounds like the food quality is down the tubes. When I was there as an undergrd the quality still wasn't great under university management.

Compass did run our corporate cafeteria and it's no surprise that they are ripping these students off blind. They overcharged for everything and the food was terrible. I see the Compass tradition continues...

citizen1

Translation: $2.7 million "Left on the table" = $2.7 million in the pocket of Chartwells. But that's OK, right..?, it is part of their business model and everyone does it.

elf

A note to Allen Reed. It is now time for the secret contract with Chartwells (Compass) be made public and the students, staff and faculty made aware of exactly what is in the contract and how they have been treated. I suggest that a "Freedom of information request" be submitted by a 3rd party like the Eagle for a complete copy of the contract dealing with the outsourcing of the dining etc. with Chartwells. It will probably take a lawyer or an accountant to decipher the contract.

Asking for an independent audit of this process as it now stands would also be useful. I think we all need to know how much money was "saved" and how much money was provided for "educational purposes" and how much more it is costing students, staff and faculty. We also need to know how much money was donated by Compass in the form of "political contributions" were made to get this contract.

Rosemary Vollmar

Didn't A&M outsource to Compass in GA, and then Compass sub-contracted to Chaetwell? If so, maybe the Chartwell info can't be gotten under the Freedom of Information Act? Maybe a few students could work that search into an extra credit project in a poli sci class?

elf

Rosemary, as I understand it, Chartwells is owned by Compass. The binding contract, however, is the one made with Texas A&M, and that IS under the Freedom of information act. The critical part is exactly what does it require the university to do. For instance, does the contract obligate the university to REQUIRE meal tickets for anyone? Your idea is a good one. Perhaps the Journalism students would be interested too.

Isn't it amazing how much effort Mr. Sharp puts into auditing and making public everyone else's business and how secretly he treats the contracts he makes for the University? I think that should be changed.

TexasEagle2

Given the contract with A&M, which is not public, the $2.4M is part of the money given to A&M each year...in other words, it is robbed from the students to pay Chartwells debt to A&M....

elf

Perhaps hoping the Eagle will investigate is hopeless. Student organizations such as the Student Senate or even the Ex-Student's organization might want to find out what's REALLY in that contract. Just a suggestion. One might want to know this information before giving any money to Texas A&M.

Aggieprof

I hope that Sabio will soon provide us with the administration's point of view. But where is he?

Tenaja

Perhaps "boarddefender" can explain to us why the System has gone to such great lengths not to be transparent. Accountability. How does it work, again?

elf

If the BOR has told the students that mandatory meal tickets were not part of the outsourcing agreement, and it was in the actual "still secret" contract, then that constitutes fraud. Since Compass is headquartered out of the state, doesn't that make it interstate fraud in the amount of at least 2.7 million dollars? If so, perhaps complaints are going to the wrong people to look into this problem. We have a federal Justice System office in Baton Rouge, I think I'll ask. Any comments, Knowitall?

dogma

why does Texas A&M require on-campus freshmen and sophomores to purchase a Chartwells meal plan, to bolster someones image or pay back favors? what ever happened to freedom of choice. I could understand the corps requiring on campus dining but other non-corp students?

mcdonaldd

"Although the outsourcing and requirement that students purchase meal plans were rolled out simultaneously, university administrators have repeatedly stressed that the changes are independent." This is true as the mandatory meal plans were announced by Dr. Loftin in 2010 before Chartwells took over dining in 2012. On September 22, 2010, the Battalion reported that mandatory meal plans would be implemented in Fall 2012, to coincide with the re-opening of the Memorial Student Center: http://www.thebatt.com/news/meal-plans-mandatory-in-2012-1.1642472

obasfirst

the mandatory meal plans were introduced when dining was still done by UNIVERSITY dining because they were supposedly loosing money. The university then decided to outsource dining because the private sector can do a much "better" job. Can they? It's easy to make a profit when you force a large number of students to pay for their product. The meal plans are much more restrictive, quality and variety is sub par (food courts even had to be closed because of health issues). Still, according the the system it was an unequivocal success.

FYI, the link mentioned prices for mandatory meal plans would start at $1,200 ($800 for juniors and seniors). Private company Chartwells charges a minimum of $1240 now (also $1240 for juniors/seniors).

Rosemary Vollmar

http://www.tarleton.edu/hr/Outsourcing-12-17-12.pdf

Rosemary Vollmar

The Tarleton pdf that is listed in the below posting by me (Rosemary Vollmar) has some excerpts from the A&M/Compass contract. Although it says the same thing that the batt article someone else just posted about mandatory meal plans were going into effect even before the Compass contract was signed, when the contract was signed, there is a provision that Compass can raise the meal prices a certain percentage every year.

The pdf is a very interesting read because the reporter does quote some contract stats.

SiliconSlick

"RFPs? We don't need no stinkin' RFPs!"

They should just rename them to RFPDs (requests for political donations) so that the whole process is more transparent.

timetoramble

Not only were the freshmen and sophomores that lived on campus cheated out of their money, but those in the Corps were too. I got the 300 meal plan because I figured that if I had extra meals I would be able to convert them to dining dollars like we were able to in previous years. I had 105 meals left at the end of the semester, and when I called dining services, the representative told me to "Use them of Lose them." I have no problem being forced to buy a meal, but they change the way the do it every year since I've been here, and Im about to graduate. They change these plans but end up cheating us over in the process. If you have excess meals, they should roll over just like dining dollars, or at least let people convert meals to dining dollars. I ran out of dining dollars around the beginning of November, so I figured I would convert extra meals, but they wouldnt let us anymore. If we have excess, we should be able to be refunded or at least let them be used in another way, but them expiring really made me angry and fed up with this university.

STM

The basic plan costs like $10 per meal regardless whether it is breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack ($1,240 a semester plus tax, for 119 meal trades, 12 guest passes and 100 dining dollars). As a reference, the food service at my alma mater currently has a basic plan of 200 all-you-can-eat meal for $1350, 10 passes plus $350 dining dollars.

because

I think the private company Compass found the perfect business model:

first, the University forces all its on-campus students to buy their meal plan,
secondly they provide such a crapy service that nobody uses it.

Not_Amused

Does anyone know if this is the same company?

New York Attorney General Announces $18 Million Settlement with Compass Group USA
Sep 19 12
New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced an $18 million settlement with Compass Group USA, Inc. for overcharging more than 39 New York schools and school districts, including 16 in the Capital Region. Nearly $3 million in overcharges will be returned to the schools and school districts statewide, and the remaining $15 million will be returned to New York taxpayers.

elf

The ethical and quality problems with Chartwells were known at the time Sharp made the decision to outsource dining to them. He either did not care about ethics or the students' welfare, or he was just power hungry and greedy, or he was acting the part of a very bad administrator.

http://www.trinitytripod.com/features/chartwells-serves-up-poor-quality-food-and-long-list-of-scandals-1.2174600#.UwuRRc-x784

elf

The solution to this problem is rather clear. Although the original agreement (Thanks Allen for posting these) does allude to "on campus housing" it does not state anywhere that mandatory meal plans are required. Since this edict came from the University administration independent of the contract with Chartwells, the mandatory requirement to purchase a meal plan, then, can be reversed at the BOR/President level and that will solve the ethical problem of requiring students to buy meals they do not use. ...unless of course there are other secret agreements.

FromAfar

Very good point, elf. Once the university outsourced, there was no reason for the university to require on campus students to buy meal plans UNLESS it was in the agreement with Compass to do so. If there was an unwritten agreement, that involves criminal activity by A&M administrators. In fact, having such a requirement after the signed contract might be taken as prima facie evidence of criminal activity because at that point there was no TAMU interest in the requirement. This is something that the DA should investigate.

elf

I don't think A.G. Gregg Abbott will investigate anything useful (personal opinion). However, since Compass is out of state, perhaps the feds will. If there is fraud involved, it's interstate fraud. I looked up the Federal DOJ offices, and they are only 4 blocks from campus. I think I'll walk down there tomorrow and see what's possible. It's the least I can do for Aggies and a university I love.

My Observation

You let us know if you are actually going to the DOJ and how it panned out, otherwise you are just some internet tough guy flapping your lips.

My Observation

Haha, you go elf , and tell us how it went or if you even went there to begin with. Your bluffing is satire, like your own personal investigations. How are those going? Bitter much?

because

please be to the point, Sabio!

elf

Actually, the head attorney, J. Walter Green was not present at the Russell B. Long U.S. Courthouse building, having been asked to serve elsewhere temporarily. I talked to one of his assistants, a Meriam Fountaine. She felt that their office should not deal with a Texas affair, but was kind enough to refer me to several people in Austin that might be able to look into the matter.

As soon as I visit Texas again, I'll keep you updated.

My Observation

Pointless, RBL is in LA and will not address the matter. If you really wanted to help, you could have gone to Houston instead. Bluffing on the internet.

master of disaster

Sabio / Boarddefender / My Obliteration will be here shortly to tell us how this is all the faculty's fault.

My Observation

You said it not me:) I wonder how elf's DOJ visit went ;)

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