Before fast food took hold and eating a midday meal became a virtual sprint, Cornell once suspended its regular operations for an official lunch hour. Now, the University is on the verge of inaugurating MealChoice, the first meal plan geared towards accommodating the modern habits of Cornell staff and faculty.
“I think it is great when you can get students, staff and faculty eating together,” said Peggy Beach, associate director of marketing for Campus Life, who helped develop MealChoice.
The Employee Assembly (E.A.), Campus Life, Cornell Dining and the Office of Human Resources combined efforts to create the new meal plan.
The program will require participants to pay a $15 enrollment fee that carries the employee throughout her or his tenure and a minimum of $25 to keep the dining account active.
Employees then receive a five percent discount on all food purchases in Cornell Dining facilities, as well as the convenience of not having to carry cash.
“We began speaking in earnest about it last spring,” Beach said.
Several years earlier, Cornell Dining considered a staff meal plan, Beach said, but the University lacked the technology necessary to operate such a system.
Then last year, Dawn Darby, E.A. chair raised the issue during discussions with the Assembly.
“It seemed like a really good idea to pursue,” Darby said. “The E.A. really took an interest, and that’s when the wheels began to turn.”
Once the plan is implemented, the E.A. will gather feedback from its participants and determine how the plan can work best for the staff — and whether improvements will be necessary.
“There are some kinks, [and] there may be some things that will have to be reworked,” Darby said, but “what’s important to me is that the University is thinking about it.”
“We want to make sure the staff is being taken care of and taken care of well,” said Nadeem Siddiqui, director of Cornell Dining, emphasizing the mission that directs Cornell Dining in its operations.
Specifically, that mission addresses the University’s students, but Siddiqui noted that without staff there would be no Campus Life, and no University at all.
“We are not here to make a profit,” he said. “I think they [staff members] are seeing that if there are changes that can be made, they are being made.”
Siddiqui assumed the leadership of Cornell Dining one year ago, and MealChoice was one of the first new programs that he helped to develop.
Siddiqui said that the University has not had the technology in the past to track employee consumption in the campus dining program.
“Now we are going to have [the technology running], so we can track it,” Siddiqui said.
Siddiqui suggested what the University will find once it measures the number of employees eating in its dining facilities.
He said, “I don’t think we capture as much [of the staff] as we can.”
Caroline Spicer, a reference librarian in Olin Library, has worked at Cornell since 1961. Needless to say, she has plenty of experience with the campus dining program, witnessing its evolution since the days of the lunch hour.
“I tend to go to the Temple of Zeus and to the Ivy Room,” Spicer said.
“As a cash-paying customer in the Straight, I get annoyed with the long lines that are involved in the meal plan,” she noted, so “I try to go in between the heavy periods before the next wave [of students] comes in.”
Spicer may eat three or four meals in a dining facility in a given week, usually consisting of two or three lunches and a dinner if she is working late into the evening one night.
Many staff only visit the facilities for a meal sparingly. A lot of staff members opt for coffee and mid-day snacks as opposed to a full meal.
“We are always ordering out for lunch or going to get lunch,” said Laurie Coon, an administrative graduate field assistant in the government department.
With a meal plan, Coon said, “I wouldn’t have to worry about where I was going to order lunch from each day.”
Coon said that employees are given 42 minutes to eat their lunches. Thus, time is always of the essence and a meal plan may be especially beneficial for the staff.
“The whole reason why we don’t eat on campus is because of the lines,” she said. “Once it reaches a certain time, you can forget about the Ivy Room.”
Once the means for the implementation and publicity of the staff meal plan are finalized, Campus Life will send brochures through the mail to staff and faculty. Campus Life will also issue newspaper advertisements and post fliers around campus to generate publicity for MealChoice.
The staff meal plan will not be accepted at Temple of Zeus in Goldwin Smith Hall or the dining facilities in Statler Hall, since these facilities are not operated by Cornell Dining, Beach said. However, the discount will apply for staff purchases through Dial-a-Lunch, a takeout service of Cornell Dining.
“In the future we hope to take payments at our registers as well,” Beach said. “We would probably try to have that done at non-peak times, although it only takes a couple of seconds.”
Crowding in many all-you-care-to-eat facilities is already a constant plague for Cornell Dining’s patrons. The concern may be exacerbated by inviting staff to occupy dining facilities more frequently.
“That’s why renovations for us is so huge,” Siddiqui said. “That’s why we need to put more seating in the Ag Quad and central campus.”
Cornell Dining is also exploring direct deposit for the dining accounts in order to make MealChoice more accessible to employees.
Siddiqui said that in the future, the University may also consider facilitating pre-taxed deposits into the staff dining accounts. Unlike students — who are exempt from state taxes on dining purchases — all staff pay state tax on their food purchases.
Since University employees must use their identification cards to access MealChoice dining accounts, only full-time staff are eligible for the program.
In all, Siddiqui said that he expects the plan to be successful.
“If the average person eats two meals to three meals a week, it pays off pretty quickly,” he said.
Archived article by Matthew Hirsch