The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

A Messy Affair: Food Catering at Ashoka

Zainab G. Firdausi, Class of 2019 and Nishant Kauntia, Class of 2018

Most of us complain about the food served in the mess. We write raging emails to the mess committee, scowl angrily when we have to wait in line for chicken/rice/rotis, and even cutlery, or some of us conveniently just go to the Dhaba. And we do so with cause: if the food I’m going to be paying for tastes bad or takes long, I ought to eat elsewhere, right? In light of such concerns regarding delays, quality decline and high prices, we talked to ICS staff and members of the administration regarding the challenges they face catering for Ashoka.

Pay Per Meal

The major shortcomings of the ICS catering service at Ashoka can all be linked back to the challenge of giving the undergraduates the privilege to pay only for the meals we actually eat. ICS is the third caterer at Ashoka University in just four years. Here’s a look at the process of food preparation that ICS follows.

For a particular meal, say lunch on Monday, the Operations Manager of ICS places an order for fruits and vegetables on Saturday, two days before the stipulated time of serving. An estimate of the number of people eating is created by the administration and provided to the ICS managers. The numbers vary from day-to-day and meal-to-meal on the basis of a rough trend which they have been able to outline.

Problems start to arise when either numbers greater than the estimate and numbers fewer than the estimate show up.

Delay in serving and long lines

Wrong Estimates

If more people turn up than were estimated, there are longer lines and shortage of food. The contract between ICS and university states that no person who shows up within the stipulated time period can be denied food. This prompts ICS to cook food at a faster rate to cater to the growing number. Consequently, obvious difference in quality can be observed: the faster they cook, the larger are the pieces of vegetable (in an effort to chop faster), which in turn affects the cooking, hence, the quality declines. (Protip — For the best quality, go to the mess early during meal-times)

When the number of people is overestimated, all the leftovers go to waste and are discarded. On an average, approximately 30% of the total food goes to waste, which is about 300–350 kg per day. The loss incurred by this wastage is suffered by ICS and the university.

Since the university guarantees a minimum of 550 students, in case only 300 show up, the university pays for 250 to reach the minimum guarantee. If ICS cooked food for 700 people on the same day, it will bear the loss of the additional 150 students. This is also the reason why ICS is currently operating at a loss catering for Ashoka. The price of the food will hence not be going down anytime soon.

Unhealthy Food

Another complain that the Mess Committee receives frequently is that mess food is not healthy enough. According to Mr. Sondhi, when ICS prepares the healthy ‘detox menu’, 200 people show up for dinner, which is way less than the minimum guaranteed to ICS (550 students). On the other hand, when they make Samosas, 1200 people show up to eat. This only implies that there has to be compromise on both sides, and a balance has to be struck between health and taste.

It must be mentioned that the cost of wasted food is not only borne by the caterers, ICS in this case. On days when the number of plates served do not match the minimum guarantee provided, Ashoka administration pays the deficit amount to the caterers. Thus, in a way the university loses more money than the caterers.

Student Behavior

Pay per meal is not the only challenge that ICS faces when catering for Ashoka. The behavior of students towards ICS staff, the mess committee and their disregard for rules has become almost as big a challenge as pay per meal.

The caterers and even the mess committee have often complained of the hostility of some students towards ICS staff. Mr. Sureet Sondhi mentioned how the morale of the ICS staff in the kitchens is affected severely due to the harsh behaviour they face during meal time. When students have to wait for food, they get frustrated, putting ICS staff under a lot of unpleasant pressure. Mr. Sondhi went on to say that part of the reason behind the departure of the earlier two caterers was the rudeness of students.

Breaking of common mess rules is still prevalent. Mr. Sondhi mentioned that people take bananas and beverages without giving coupons for them. This is noticed by the ICS staff, but they don’t say anything in fear of having a hostile exchange with a student. In several instances when staff members have mustered up the courage to stop students from taking food or beverages without coupons, they have been met with anger from students.

What Does the Future Hold?

To address the problems that arise from wrong estimates, the administration is now taking initiatives to get a more accurate sense of how many people will come to eat on any particular day. To that end, the Ashoka Business and Consulting Club is now working to employ data analytics to give better estimates of turnout to ICS. Raghav Katyal, Consulting Club Head spoke to the Edict, “on most days, overproduction leads to around 200 kg of food being wasted, which consequently leads to a decline in the taste of the food. We have been working on a forecasting model such that ICS produces only as much as is required. Additionally, we have also designed a feedback system which will enable the students to rate the quality of food being served by ICS. We are confident that a combination of such solutions will lead to a better dining experience for all of us.”

The above solution can only promote efficiency of the caterers, the remainder of the effort must come from the student body.

Zainab G. Firdausi is the Managing Editor of the News coloumn of The Edict. Nishant Kauntia is the Editor-In-Chief of The Edict.

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