Brown Dining Services is broken. As recent reporting has revealed, staff at campus dining halls are suffering due to overwork, communication failures and disorganized management. Our workers deserve better. They deserve a University that acknowledges their struggles, at the very least, and commits to improving working conditions.
In the short term, our campus community, especially students, must advocate for better treatment of our dining hall staff. We cannot let the issue fade, and we cannot expect Brown to act without pressure. But in the long run, we need better and more permanent solutions. The University needs to fundamentally rethink how it treats the individuals who quite literally sustain our campus.
Brown’s glossy public image belies a bleak reality behind its kitchen doors. Dining employees, understaffed and under-resourced, are struggling to handle their duties; one even resorted to using clothing hangers to clean the fryers. The consequences extend beyond the kitchen. Staff have noted sanitation concerns, and students have witnessed firsthand fewer dining options and longer lines. But the brunt of the damage has been felt by the dining employees themselves. In the words of one worker: “We’re in desperate need of help right now.”
Despite the gravity of these recent revelations, the University has not issued a public response to the poor working conditions within its dining halls. In the Herald reporting exposing these glaring failures, administrators pointed to a faltering job market to explain understaffing and logistical complexity to explain disorganization, but these explanations feel inadequate. They certainly do not excuse the sorry conditions currently faced by workers worn thin by a system that has demonstrated little concern for their well-being. And it’s difficult to sympathize with a University that regularly flexes its financial powerand prestige. How can Brown neglect to adequately invest in dining in the same year that its endowment return topped 50%?
Brown must issue a public statement outlining how it will improve conditions for dining hall workers. Public, because this issue affects our entire community and it is easier to hold our administrators accountable when we are aware of what they’re promising.
In the meantime, it is important for our campus to continue speaking up against the mistreatment of our dining hall staff. We commend the individuals — and most recently, a coalition of 18 student groups — who have spoken up to lobby administrators for change, and we urge others to join in. As one dining hall employee noted, “The only time when Brown ever listens to us is when the students get involved.” Our voices carry weight, and unlike dining staff, we don’t put our livelihoods on the line when we advocate.
At the same time, student activism is only a temporary fix for deeper issues. The University must rectify its systemic and historic failure to address the needs of its dining hall staff.
Firstly, Brown should improve its existing feedback channels for employees and actually start listening. George Barboza, vice president of Dining Programs, claims that there is an “open-door” policy for staff feedback. Yet many employees have stated that they don’t feel heard by management and that their grievances aren’t being taken seriously. The fact that each dining worker who spoke to The Herald did so anonymously for fear of retribution seems to corroborate these claims. Dining workers do not feel empowered to advocate for themselves and their well-being.
Today, it is easy for the University to blame its failures on the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. But in fact, these failures have ample precedent. For example, understaffing concerns persisted for many years prior to the pandemic. Brown’s failure to provide air conditioning in the Sharpe Refectory for many years is another example of this continual neglect. Until 2019 , staff in the kitchens of our main dining hall endured sweltering heat in the summer months. It took a combination of staff outrage, student advocacy and, finally, administrative action to fix the problem. And the pace of change was painstakingly and unacceptably slow: One employee had worked in Dining Services at Brown for over 19 years before he experienced A/C in the Ratty kitchen. In short, the University has long failed to listen to its dining employees. When it provides solutions, they tend to be reactive, rather than proactive. Without fundamental changes to the structure of Brown Dining, the problems facing dining workers will simply permute.
Dining hall workers are an integral part of our community, and they deserve better. The University must heed the concerns of its employees, and it should empower them to speak up. Providing adequate working conditions for our dining hall staff shouldn’t be seen as a bonus ― it’s the bare minimum.
Commenting on the state of current working conditions, one dining hall employee put it this way: “It’s got to break eventually.” But Brown Dining Services is already broken. How is Brown going to fix it?
— Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. This editorial was written by its editor Johnny Ren ’23, and members Clara Gutman Argemí ’22, Catherine Healy ’22, Olivia Burdette ’22, Devan Paul ’24 and Kate Waisel ’24.