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Lack of staff affects student support

Earlier this month, students eating dinner at Founders Commons were met with a surprise: the buffet-style cafeteria had left small bugs in the broccoli served that evening.

Grady Mahusay, a sophomore at Mills, was the first student to enter the dining hall that evening and brought it to the attention of an employee. The employee referred Mahusay to the attending supervisor who was shocked to find that the broccoli was being served in its contaminated state, resulting in it being promptly removed from the counter.

For most students living on-campus, the food available at Founders Commons and the Tea Shop are the only hot, ready-to-eat meals they have access to. Students living in the Orchard Meadow, Warren Onley, Lynn Townsend White, Ethel Moore, and Mary Morse Halls are required by Mills to be on a meal plan.

The meal plan includes 10-plus, 12-plus, and 15-plus options, in addition to Tea Shop points. These options were designed to give students flexibility based on their needs, choosing between the two dining options depending on their schedules.

However, food insecurity—the difficulty of accessing adequate and affordable, nutritional meals—is an ongoing issue amongst students at Mills. In the past year, there have been some efforts to tackle this. The Mills Food Pantry opened in Fall 2019 after a series of pop-up events in the prior semester, the Tea Shop introduced a value menu of items priced at $1-$3, and Founders Commons now offers discounted meals for commuter students in the last 30 minutes of the dinner session.

According to the Dining page on the Mills website, the food “is made with seasonal ingredients from local farms (including our own Mills Community Farm), so our chefs can maximize flavor and nutritional value.” As of recently, however, some students are becoming more concerned about their health.

Founders Commons and the Tea Shop are both catered by Bon Appétit, owned by Compass Group.

Mahusay, a Resident Assistant (RA) for the Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Hall, is financially independent and supports herself through college. Becoming an RA is a great opportunity for students who can strongly benefit from the waived cost of room and board, as well as the meal plan. But for Mahusay, eating at Founders Commons and the Tea Shop is not ideal.

In February of last year, Mahusay was diagnosed with diabetes and saw a correlation with how the food she was eating at Mills affected her. Prior to her diagnosis, she was eating most of her meals at Founders Commons due to its affordability.

“I find that there’s not a lot of options at Founders,” Mahusay said, “and if I’m going to eat at the Tea Shop, it’s usually something that’s fried or … something that’s not good for me.”

Her diet is based on high proteins like meat and vegetables and avoids bread, sugars and carbohydrate-based foods. She began cooking her own meals after her diagnosis and found that her health started to improve. When Mahusay knew she was going to become an RA, she took steps to be removed from the meal plan, as she was not going to use it, and instead wanted to receive a cash stipend that is given to RAs within the independent housing, such as the Prospect Apartments. This process was complicated, as Mahusay was going to be an RA for Warren Onley, where meal plans are assigned.

She got in contact with Residential Life and Student Access and Support Services (SASS) to discuss accommodations with a doctor’s note that supported her needs. Merilee McCormick, the manager of Bon Appétit at Mills, supported Mahusay’s need to be removed from the meal plan, but the administrative process was long and complex.

Mahusay was unable to meet with Residential Life and SASS and mostly communicated with the departments through email. With a student body of over 700 students, departments at Mills can become overwhelmed with the number of students that need assistance. Currently, there is no director of Residential Life, and Julia Cohen, the director of Accessibility Services, handles much of the student accommodations at SASS.

After months of emails, Mahusay was removed from the meal plan but is still waiting on the stipend that will allow her to buy groceries and continue to cook her own meals.

Mahusay feels very passionate about support for staff and student needs. She hopes that in the future, there will be more efforts made towards hiring staff in departments that directly work with student accommodations.

“I wish that Mills would put more focus and money into the student support services aspect of school, because there’s such a huge community of people who need it,” she said. “I’m an RA for the emotional support animal residence, so all of my residents fall under SASS accommodations, and most of Prospect falls under SASS accommodations because they’re there for a reason. … There’s such a large community of people [in SASS]”.

Understaffing issues also affect the dining options at Mills, as the Tea Shop is no longer open on the weekends, and Founders Commons is open for limited hours. When full-time students, residential and commuting, need to eat, they should not have to worry about the quality of what is being served at their institution.