Everything has a price.
After recent controversy regarding a proposed mandatory meal plan, certain complaints regarding campus food have risen as justification for adamant refusal to purchase dining dollars. Although the proposal has now been retracted, discontent remains.
Lauren Thomsen, a senior in English literature, lives off campus and did not purchase a meal plan for this year.
Thomsen said she tries to avoid campus food when possible.
"I eat on campus only when I work, and usually I'm dissatisfied because the food is either super unhealthy or just not very tasty," Thomsen said. "It's no walk in the park buying all my food from the grocery store and motivating myself to fix something to eat, but I can eat much more cheaply at home and at least give myself the illusion that I'm eating healthier."
Addressing these concerns, Neil Brown, president and co-founder of Project V.E.G.G.I.E., advocates for greater incorporation of locally-grown produce.
"The reason it's so hard to get good fruits and vegetables on campus is the provider," Brown said. "At some point, they were talking about doing more with local foods, but I don't know how serious they were."
Affording benefits to the local economy and the university, eating local costs less in terms of transportation and offers a longer period of ripeness, given food can be delivered in a matter of hours, rather than days.
But, according to Mary Patterson, Aramark's marketing director, locally grown food is already a central component of Aramark menus.
Currently, UT's campus dining website provides a map of Tennessee showing locations of the locally-sourced foods which Aramark claims to provide.
"We are always working to provide students with quality, convenience, value and variety," Patterson said. "Our dining hall menus are designed to provide a diverse assortment of food options that easily allow students to select a healthy and well balanced diet. Our menus are created by our team of professional and certified chefs and are created based on feedback we receive from students.
"In general, our menus feature a variety of whole foods that are raised, grown, harvested and produced locally and in a sustainable manner," Patterson added. "We purchase and provide fresh fruits and vegetables when in season."
Despite Patterson's claims, Elias Attea, a senior in plant science, said he sees Aramark's company policies as a roadblock for smaller, local farmers.
"In order to be registered as a reliable producer, Aramark demands that its food providers have an insurance liability of something like 1 or 5 million dollars," Attea said, "which limits many producers in this area to provide fresh, high quality food. Think about it. If you were a small farmer, would you be able to afford even a $1 million insurance on your crops that year?"
Attea also asserted that purchasing local produce would maintain or decrease food prices for the university.
"According to studies, purchasing local would not increase meal plans, if done in gradual integration," Attea said. "And at the rate of fuel costs, sometimes local foods are cheaper than shipping tomatoes from Mexico."
Laura Beth Hirt, a freshman in economics and business analytics, has multiple special dietary problems that restrict her food choices. After moving to campus, she found few foods on campus she could digest, causing illness and forcing her parents to repeatedly contact dining services.
"My diet often consists of potatoes, both sweet and baked, which was not an option here for the first few months," Hirt said. "Now, we have baked potatoes and sweet potatoes daily. I really didn't mean to make a permanent change to the dining system. I would have been fine with being handed raw potatoes to cook myself. I just was getting sick once every few days because I had to eat what was offered to me in the dining hall."
Patterson said dining works hard to understand student needs through feedback.
"Student feedback is extremely important to us," Patterson said. "We survey students every semester to better understand their needs and preferences and implement changes based on the feedback we receive. We meet regularly with the dining committee and SGA to obtain feedback and ideas about the dining program."
As UT strives to improve its national rankings, students have argued that improved food quality is a necessary initiative.
"If UT is trying to make its way to a Top 25 public university, you would think that they would provide nutritious foods to their students, considering food is basically a medicine that keeps the body running," said Jackson Bogach, a freshman in geology. "However, it doesn't seem the university cares about our health in regards to food."
As a result, student organizations are garnering support for this movement.
"The food quality on campus is not the best that it could be," said Candice Lawton, vice president and co-founder of Project V.E.G.G.I.E. "And there are students who are working to improve that through a lot of initiatives like Project V.E.G.G.I.E. and a food forest initiative that's coming about."
An improvement in communication between students and campus dining could also engender a more fruitful relationship.
"There are students, faculty and staff that are demanding higher quality foods whether that be better tasting, better quality ingredients or more accurate labeling," Attea said. "Perhaps it is not what is wrong with the dining services but why UT's campus hasn't taken a greater stand to communicate our interests in better food sooner."