The Knox County Health Department came knocking at Vol Dining’s door this May for a mandatory health inspection. This unannounced visit uncovered multiple health code violations in UT cafeterias and fast food locations.
While newer facilities like Fresh Food Company and Steak n’ Shake harbored no serious violations, the health department found multiple instances of equipment build-up, out-of-date food and unsanitary kitchen conditions at a majority of campus food sources.
Gnats were found in Twisted Taco, Qdoba, Chick-Fil-A, Salad Creations and Panda Express. Mice and gnats were found at Smokey’s Grill. Most egregiously, a large infestation of cockroaches was found in Presidential Court Building’s (PCB) cafeteria, one of the university’s most prominent dining facilities.
In light of these findings, many freshmen were upset that one of their only consistent sources of food turned out to be unsafe.
Tucker Claeys, a freshman studying supply chain management, had heard of PCB’s cockroach problem but wasn’t aware of how serious the issue turned out to be.
“I knew there was a cockroach problem in PCB, but I didn’t know it was to the extent that it was,” Claeys said. “It’s a little frustrating because every freshman is on the same dining plan. So I expect to be able to go in there and eat safely. I don’t want my health to be an issue when I’m eating at my own school’s dining hall.”
Given the importance of PCB as a source of daily food, Claeys was upset that there are so few cheap alternatives in light of the situation.
“Right now the only [alternative] I can think would be to go to Stokely. It’s much newer and the food’s better, so maybe that’s a little cleaner,” Claeys said. “But other than that, you’d have to walk to a Chic-Fil-A or some store on the strip where you’d have to pay for your meal. We’re paying so much money to come here [that] we can’t be wasting $20 a day just on food.”
Madeline Ewald, a freshman in animal science, concurred with Claeys, saying that the situation made it much more difficult to dine cheaply.
“It is really hard to save money. This is the only resource we have for food unless you want to spend your dining dollars somewhere else,” Ewald said.
However, some freshmen were more optimistic. Sally Shadrach, a freshman on the exploratory track, said that while the situation has driven her away from PCB and towards other dining options instead, she takes comfort in shared experience.
“My experiences at PCB have been very pleasant, but I think they’ve been a little shadowed by rumors that it is not clean or [has] bugs,” Shadrach said. “It definitely makes me want to eat at Stokely or use meal equivalency more because they’re options that are much better and cleaner--but at the same time the gross rumors kind of bond everyone as freshmen since we’re all in it together.”
In light of the information released in May, Aramark, a food services company that operates much of the dining at UT, and Vol Dining have maintained their stance of providing safe and healthy dining areas for all students.
“We have a long standing commitment to promoting food safety. Serving safe, nutritious and quality food is Aramark's top priority,” Mary Patterson, Vol Dining’s Senior District Marketing Manager, said. “We have rigorous quality assurance and food safety processes, and we are committed to continuously enhancing those procedures.”
Vol Dining appears to have greatly improved the situation, with recent reevaluations showing a lack of major infestations.
But how did Vol dining arrive at such a state?
Camila Almeida, the Knox County Health Inspector who recorded the findings at UT, shed some light on the issue. First, she clarified that inspections are reviews of a facility’s health situation at a single point in time and can’t possibly account for how that facility operates on a daily basis.
“These regulatory inspections are a snapshot in time. They do not speak for how the operation happens 24 hours a day and seven days a week,” Almeida said. “For that moment when we are in the establishment, we get an understanding of where we can help.”
In regards to bug infestations, she said that it was a relatively common occurrence that sometimes happens through daily operations.
“When it comes to pest control issues, harborage tends to be a consistent [cause]. So unused equipment or blind spots in our cleaning cycle where we don’t see an area that’s harboring pests,” Almeida said. ““It just happens sometimes. [Bugs] come in sometimes on people’s clothing, sometimes on food products [and] sometimes on equipment.”
Almeida recalled directing cafeteria managers towards contacting pest control, disposing of contaminated materials and ensuring that every kitchen surface was properly cleaned. According to Almeida, management did all of this immediately.
“The one thing I would like to say about the management at Presidential Court is that they do a fantastic job working with the Health Department,” Almeida said. “When I went in and discovered the items, I did not sense any hesitancy to correct the problems that they had. There was no malicious intent felt on my behalf.”
When the Beacon contacted Vol Dining, they appeared as enthusiastic about correcting their mistakes as Almeida described.
“Our food service staff is also engaged in a learning environment that includes a food safety orientation before associates start work, ongoing manager and associate food safety training and job-specific training to continually reinforce safe practices,” Patterson saidAs dining staff are further educated on health and safety, we can only hope next year’s inspection will bode well for Big Orange Country.