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Serving it up: Elon University sanitation grades may not reflect students’ perception of dining experience

On March 15, Elon University’s Octagon Cafe underwent a routine health and sanitation inspection. The facility suffered a one-and-a-half point demerit for raw chicken containers that were not being sanitized.

On Aug. 9, Acorn Coffee Shop received a similar demerit for storing food on areas built up with dust and dirt.

Later that month, McEwen Dining Hall was marked down after inspectors found dirty clothing accumulating on food preparation surfaces.

The Alamance County Department of Health inspects the dining facilities on Elon’s campus four times a year, holding them to the same standard that is maintained throughout North Carolina. And despite their demerits, these on-campus eating establishments consistently score high sanitation ratings, often ranging between 97 and 101. The high grades are displayed in black frames on the facilities’ walls for the campus community to see.

But even though Elon works hard to maintain a clean and safe dining environment, students’ perception of said dining environment is an entirely different beast. Do Elon students understand where those sanitation grades come from? And if so, do they care?

Making the grade

Across the state of North Carolina, health and sanitation inspections have become an increasingly painstaking process. Just this year, the environmental branch of the Alamance County Department of Health released an updated document of food service sanitation rules to which dining establishments must adhere. The list identifies the top five risk factors found in any kitchen, including improper holding temperatures and poor employee hygiene, along with ways to combat those risks behind the scenes. Food handlers are now required to wash their hands more frequently throughout the day, and mandatory holding temperatures have been adjusted.

Kate Nelson is the marketing manager at ARAMARK, Elon’s food service provider. She said Elon takes a number of precautions to ensure each facility is meeting the state requirements for inspection.

“We have an institutional priority of maintaining at least a 97 percent on all of our inspections,” Nelson said. “The criteria developed by the state continuously becomes more stringent, and the Elon facilities continue to receive the same high scores.”

But it wasn’t always that way. In April 2002, Elon’s student newspaper, The Pendulum, reported several facilities that had not scored nearly as high as they do now. At the time, the highest on-campus sanitation grade was a 94.5 at McEwen Dining Hall. The lowest was at Acorn Coffee Shop: 88 percent.

But according to Nelson, ARAMARK has assisted Elon’s employees in becoming more conscious of sanitation throughout the years. This includes fulfillment of a training program called ServSafe which, if completed by a manager or employee, was formerly able to boost any dining establishment’s sanitation grade by two points.

“As an organization, we do have a third party inspect our facilities as a part of our safety platform,” Nelson said. “All of our managers are ServSafe certified, and we have continuing training and developmental opportunities for our front line associates.”

According to North Carolina Health News, the state is adopting new food handling rules that will no longer apply the ServSafe bonus to inspections. Additionally, unless every manager who works in a facility has ServSafe certification, the establishment will lose another two points from their sanitation grade.

But Nelson said the cleanliness and maintenance of Elon’s dining facilities is always significant, regardless of any extra credit that can be earned.

“The safety of our customers and staff are at the highest level of our priorities, and health inspections are one part of this overall philosophy,” she said. “It is a part of our culture and should always be monitored closely.”

Catering to students

When discussing dining facilities, the word “sanitation” might bring to mind crude images of dirt and bacteria. Salmonella, E. coli and other food-related illnesses are a consistent concern for many.

Some, though, may gloss over the prevalence of food allergies on a college campus and the hazards that sanitation problems could bring to that demographic.

Catering to students with food allergies is an important issue, according to Ginette Archinal, medical director of student health and university physician. In her time on campus this semester, Archinal has recognized students suffering from nut allergies, shellfish allergies and lactose intolerance. Celiac disease, or an allergy to gluten, is also very common on Elon’s campus, she said.

But Elon has maximized its efforts to provide gluten-free food in the dining facilities, labeling those foods specifically for allergic students.

“If you look at [Elon’s efforts] in comparison with restaurants, for example, I think they’re significantly better,” Archinal said. “I think it’s because there’s an awareness that it’s a slightly different population here.”

Junior Emily Albertelli knows firsthand how accommodating Elon can be for students who are allergic to gluten. Albertelli, who is also allergic to corn, dairy, oats and peanuts, had specific arrangements made for her during her first year at Elon.

“When I was a freshman, I was allowed to have an extra small refrigerator in my room for gluten free-food,” Albertelli said. “And I was given a key to access a small kitchen in the Virginia dorm to cook some of my own meals.”

But students and faculty who suffer from a gluten allergy may be concerned with food preparation. If the same gloves that touch products containing gluten also touch gluten-free products, some may wonder if that is cause for concern.

But according to Archinal, cross-contamination should not be on customers’ minds.

“It is the very, very, very rare person with Celiac disease who would have any problem just with that,” she said. “Gluten intolerance and Celiac disease is a protein problem. You have to have a certain amount of it to cause a problem. I wouldn’t expect a problem just from minor stuff like that.”

Even Albertelli, who has experienced minor cross-contamination issues during her time at Elon, said it is not a significant problem on campus overall.

“When I go to Acorn or Boar’s Head, the people working always change their gloves to avoid cross-contamination,” Albertelli said. “They have clearly trained most of their staff in properly handling gluten-free foods.”

When it comes to protecting students from theirown allergies, Archinal said Elon does a very thorough job.

“You have choices of dining halls, you have choices of places, but ultimately, if you’re on the meal plan, you’re eating here,” she said. “And therefore, Elon has a responsibility to make sure that it’s safe for people to eat here on campus. I think Elon generally takes that very seriously.”

Albertelli does have one recommendation for improvement, though.

“I think they could label other foods for allergies,” she said. “I mostly just see gluten-free labels and rarely labels for peanuts or dairy, which are just as common.”

What the students see

When it comes to maintaining a sanitary eating environment, Elon students are at the forefront of employees’ minds. But students aren’t always giving sanitation grades the same amount of thought in return.

Varsity Sports Grille scored a 99.5 percent on its most recent health sanitation rating, which took place Aug. 31.

Junior Jennessa Battaini said although she isn’t surprised by Elon’s consistently high sanitation scores, she has never given the grading process much consideration in general.

“I never really thought about it or took interest in it,” Battaini said. “I assume somebody takes care of that.”

But students who don’t often think about the sanitation grading process also don’t know why dining facilities receive certain demerits, or how much those demerits are worth. During a Sept. 20 inspection, Colonnades Dining Hall received a one-and-a-half-point demerit for improper cooling of potentially hazardous food – a critical violation, according to the North Carolina Public Health Inspections database.

Still, freshman Camille Smith is choosing to give Elon the benefit of the doubt. While she said she would be turned off from a dining facility if she found hair in her food or cockroaches on the premises, Elon’s slip-ups don’t faze her.

“You don’t really notice the small things that you might get points off for,” Smith said. “I’m always trying to be clean. I expect the school to do that, too.”

For others, having a positive opinion of Elon’s dining facilities isn’t quite as clear-cut. Freshman Erin Riccio, who said she also doesn’t pay much attention to how Elon’s facilities acquire their sanitation grades, has had a few experiences that worry her.

“I was at the salad bar at Colonnades and there was a moth that was scooped onto my plate,” Riccio said. “I don’t really eat the salad anymore.”

Riccio and Smith have both been similarly turned off by minor dining hall details: McEwen Dining Hall has dim lighting and what Smith calls a “weird” smell. She no longer eats potatoes for breakfast after being served several cold helpings. Riccio has noticed unclean bowls during her time in the dining halls.

And while the girls are not repulsed by these infractions, they agree Elon could be taking more precautions.

“If you have a bunch of people living together, obviously health sanitation is a huge issue,” Riccio said. “If somebody gets sick or something goes wrong, there’s the potential for that illness or disease. It’s important to take the necessary steps to prevent that.”

But to Amy Eastwood, it seems Elon students simply don’t care about the cleanliness of the university’s dining facilities.

Eastwood has been a server at Varsity Sports Grille for almost two years, and she has had firsthand experience with receiving demerits during a sanitation inspection. Varsity, which previously boasted a grade of 100.5, was recently brought down by one full point after a pot of soup was found to be three degrees lower than what the state requires.

“I hated to see our number drop just for something like that, but people don’t realize the things that can get you demerits,” Eastwood said. “It can be what you think is so minor.”

In response to these demerits, Eastwood said the Varsity kitchen staff works very hard to maintain a clean and safe environment. In fact, although the state of North Carolina issued a new set of sanitation rules Sept. 1, Eastwood already follows most of those rules on her own.

“We’re very meticulous with the cleaning,” she said. “I guess there’s always going to be some issue someplace, but not on my shift.”

But when it comes to how much students care about the upkeep of their dining facilities, Eastwood said it is only the gluten-free students who really seem to care about the proper sanitation. Others are simply apathetic, even when Varsity’s garbage cans are clearly stocked with trash and spilling onto the floor.

“There has not been one incident where a student has come to me or any other employee in this facility and said, ‘Your trash is overflowing in the hall,’” Eastwood said. “It may be liquid on the floor, it may be food on the floor, and they will continue to pile on their trays and their cups. That’s a problem, you know?”

So what do the students really care about, then?

“I really don’t think they’re so much concerned with cleanliness as they are just getting their food and hanging out and watching TV,” Eastwood said. “And they do that.”

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