Student groups are struggling to afford food for their events now that Chartwells Catering has bumped up prices on the student snack menu by 300 percent this term.
Chartwells, a division of Compass Group USA Inc. and branded on campus as PSU EATS, signed a 10-year contract with Portland State in 2017 for exclusive rights to provide meal plans and food service in Smith Memorial Student Union, the Viking Pavilion and PSU’s dining halls.
The contractual agreement between PSU and Chartwells requires student groups go through Chartwells for catering if they are holding an event in SMSU. A waiver process is required if catering needs are tied to a specific cultural calendar event and have food requirements Chartwells cannot meet.
Student organizations are required to plan their budgets out a year in advance and submit them to the Student Fee Committee. Leslie-Christie said the unannounced increases will present significant challenges to student groups with limited budgets who were not anticipating the added costs.
It’s unclear whether Chartwells is required to provide notice to student organizations for price increases. According to the contract, PSU has the right to approve or reject requested price increases.
One student group, the Portland State Programming Board, said the price increases have made it difficult to provide food to everyone who attends their Midterm Stress Relief event, which takes place in SMSU each term.
According to PSPB Co-director Lindsey Pham, the food order they placed for this term’s Midterm Stress Relief event doubled from $2,000 fall term to $4,000 winter term. Pham said the sudden price increase caused PSPB to raise concerns with the Organization Budget Council, a student-fee-funded area that allocates funds to student groups.
“When [Chartwells] increases the prices, they do not communicate with anyone—they just increase the price,” Pham said. “We thought it was a mistake because it was so much more expensive, but they said it’s not.”
A one-person serving of “Farm Fresh Crudite and Ranch” from Chartwells’ student snacks catering menu is $3.79. That means a tray that serves 10 people is $37.90.
The same product and quantity was $8 during winter 2018–19.
According to the agreement between Chartwell’s and PSU, student catering services are supposed to include a student-specific menu “designed to meet their specific budgetary needs.”
“I’m not satisfied,” said Kyle Leslie-Christie, Associated Students of Portland State student life director. “[The price change] is unwarranted, especially after we already passed our budget proposals for next year.”
“Even if it isn’t [in] the contract to inform the students or student organizations, you should still morally be like, ‘We’re increasing our prices by this much, and this is why,’” Leslie-Christie said.
Attila Szlovak, catering director at Chartwells, said he is responsible for the increase in the student snack menu prices.
“I came into PSU about six months ago,” Szlovak said. “It took me a few months to notice, but we noticed that the prices were below our cost about two months ago and changed them last month.”
As pricing goes, Szlovak said there are three different catering menus: guest, faculty and staff and student. Szlovak stressed although he only increased prices on the student snack menu, the price increases were not intended to be malicious, and they are not planning on raising prices again before the next fiscal year begins.
“Student prices are still 25–30 percent lower than other menu prices,” Szlovak said. “We don’t make our money on the students. If we were only selling to students then we would lose money. But we need to make sure that the whole operation is healthy.”
“The snack menu is the one that students order from the most,” Pham said. “Chartwells says they’re selling it at a price that’s less expensive than what they bought it for. They were already more expensive than the food we could find off campus, and now they’re even more expensive.”
Pham said the price increases have forced them to scale back on their typically large food order.
“We don’t have enough food for everyone, so we’ve had to limit the food to one slice of pizza per person,” Pham said. “We stopped ordering the veggie trays because they are five times more expensive now.”
“Our events are for the whole campus, so we know it can never be an option for us,” Pham said.
She added putting on a bigger event and providing a large amount of food is easier for a bigger student group such as PSPB.
“We have a bigger budget than other groups, but for smaller groups—say they only have $3,000 per term—with the increase in prices they could only hold one event,” Pham said.
When asked whether the prices listed were competitive with different stores and universities nearby, as required per their contract with PSU, Szlovak claims that they did their research.
“We did studies at different stores and universities to compare prices,” Szlovak said. “A veggie tray at Safeway costs $19.99 and at New Seasons it’s $25.”
According to Safeway’s catering menu, a “Best of the Season” veggie tray that serves 6–8 is $19.99.
Pham pointed out that store prices are usually significantly lower than catering options.
“Chartwells charges $2.99 for a one-person serving of Chex Mix,” Pham said. “You can buy a whole bag of it at the store that would serve five people for only $2. Now Chex Mix for 100 people would be $300.”
A veggie tray from the vegetable aisle at Safeway sized similarly to Chartwells’ veggie tray costs $12.99 for a 46 ounce “Premium Vegetable Tray” that also includes ranch dressing, and $10.99 for a 36.5 ounce “Organic Vegetable Tray.”
On Portland Community College’s catering menu, a small “Veggie Platter with Ranch Dip” serving 5–10 is $15, a medium tray serving 11–15 is $30 and a large tray serving 15–20 is $45.
PCC’s catering menu’s “Additional Items” category includes linen and china service as an optional added cost. Chartwells, however, does not have a similar “Additional Items” category, because according to Szlovak, it is tacked onto the food cost.
“The prices also reflect the cost of labor and transportation, as well as liability costs for Chartwells,” Szlovak said. “We also provide things like linens and cups.”
When asked about how many food waivers exempting student groups from going through Chartwells for catering normally get approved, Szlovak said there are 40 pre-approved food waivers built into the contract.
“We are happy to talk to student groups if they come to us about costs or special needs,” Szlovak said. “For example, if a student group has a preferred food or [food that is] part of their culture and they are strongly requesting it, we won’t stand in their way. We will be the first to say if we can’t do it.”
As stated in the contract Chartwells signed with PSU, if a student has an issue with any aspect of student catering, they can submit a written complaint that Chartwells must respond to and address. According to Szlovak, since the student snack menu price increase, there was at least one written complaint submitted by a student group.
“We sat down with the group so they could hold their event,” Szlovak said. “We adjusted and made a special menu for them. We can always sit down and adjust and tweak our menu.”
A previous version of this article erroneously referred to PSU’s Organization Budget Council as a Student Fee Committee sub-committee. The article has been updated.