Cafeteria serves up monopoly

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Posted: March 26, 2015
Photos Illustration | Steven Smith
Photos Illustration | Steven Smith

At Riverside City College, we don’t have many options to choose from for lunch. There’s the campus cafeteria – or the campus bookstore, if you feel like spending $3 on a microwave meal.

The cafeteria has an unfair monopoly on the stomachs of students and staff, and the District policy has been manipulated to ensure that monopoly is maintained. At a campus that serves over 19,000 students in any given semester, the number of available food service options nearby is woefully inadequate.

During normal meal times the campus cafeteria, the City Grill, is swarmed with students rushing to get in a bite before their next class, only to be late because the lines were too long.

At the cafeteria, lines are everywhere. There is a line of students waiting for their food, a line at the soda fountain, a line at the cash register, even a cluster of people by the condiments and utensils. It leads to the seemingly endless question: “Is this the end of the line?”

When a Viewpoints staff member measured the time it took to walk into the cafeteria, order a cheese quesadilla and pay, the total came out to 24 minutes and 31 seconds.

“I only get a 30 minute break from work, and I end up spending my entire (lunch) break waiting for my food,” Evelyn Garcia, an RCC student worker, said.

In order to cut down on the wait, students go for the cafeteria’s grab-and-go options. These can include healthy pre-made salads and sandwiches, but the best selling items are pizza, chicken strips and fries according to Cheryl Ruzak, director of Food Services.

Aside from the cafeteria or bookstore, the closest place off campus where students and staff can get food is the Jack in the Box on 14th Street, 1.6 miles away. For someone who walks at an average of 3.1 mph, it would take over an hour just to walk to and from that location. After fighting in the morning for a parking spot, the idea of losing that spot to battle midday downtown traffic is not appealing. Not to mention trying to find a new parking spot when returning.

Most people just want to relax and eat during their lunchtime, not fight traffic or throw elbows in the cafeteria line.

On a rare occasion, we might see a food truck on campus. However, food trucks aren’t allowed to sell anything that competes with the cafeteria. No burgers, no pizza, no substantive meal-type food. When the Sweet Stop parks on campus, they are only allowed to sell funnel cakes, nachos, smoothies and lemonade, even though they would be able to sell many other item. Although delicious, funnel cakes and nachos are not a substantial meal.

According to Board Policy 6700: “The service or sale of food or refreshment will not normally be permitted on District property, except in the food service area. Any exception must be pre-approved by the College Food Services Department, or designee.”

“We allow outside vendors to come on campus for special events,” Ruzak said. “We are a non-profit. We are a service entity to the college, so we don’t get any general fund money, all are of our expenses are self-supporting. So, if other vendors were to come on campus, they would, essentially, take those sales away from us. We wouldn’t be able to cover our expenses.”

Ruzak also cited food safety as a concern for outside vendors. She also raised the question of where outside vendors would be getting power and other utilities, because Food Services pays for its own utilities.

It’s understandable that Food Services would want to protect its revenue streams, but that’s not with service to students in mind, which is supposed to be the goal of Riverside Community College District. If done well, allowing outside vendors in different places around campus could boost the number of students who buy their lunches on campus, resulting in a boost for Food Services as well.

No competition with other vendors means the RCC cafeteria has a monopoly on what food students consume on campus. With no competition, there is less motivation for Food Services to keep prices down or the food good. There is, of course, the voting power of our wallets, but the voting power of the stomach often wins that battle.

Within BP 6700, there is a “use of facilities fee schedule” for outside groups to use different facilities on District property. A simple solution to serve the school better would be to allow different food trucks to rent space on campus during the lunch rush. The money for the rental space could go directly to Food Services to help make up for any lost profit. This would give more options to staff and students, lighten the backup in cafeteria lines, make the District money and help the local economy. Letting food trucks camp in different spots around campus will also be helpful when you’re all the way in the Math and Science Building and you don’t want to trek clear across campus to the cafeteria for food.

According to Ruzak, outside vendors have to fill out a “food authorization form” and provide the right insurance and food safety paperwork to be able to come on campus for any special events. If vendors can do this for special events, they could ideally do this more frequently.

Until the District and Food Services loosen their monopoly, the best option for students might be to just brown-bag it.

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