Residential Dining Services is settling a refund deal with a dorm resident who said she was misinformed about the vegan and vegetarian meal options offered by Ortega Dining Commons.
Freshman environmental studies major Jackie Bolbat – who keeps to a vegan diet – said she has been trying to get a refund for her meal plan since March 2004 when she discovered the black bean burgers listed as vegan on both Ortega’s website and menu board had eggs as an ingredient.
Bolbat has not eaten in Ortega since her discovery. She said she gets her meals by eating at restaurants and buying and keeping food from co-ops and grocery stores in her room.
A vegan diet consists of vegetables, fruit, legumes, beans, seeds and bread. However, unlike a vegetarian diet, it does not include animal byproducts such as eggs or dairy products.
“I didn’t feel comfortable eating in the cafeteria anymore,” Bolbat said. “How can you have confidence in the school once they make a mistake like that? You can’t.”
Bolbat said she discovered the ingredients of the burgers included cheese after reading the burger packaging box at her residence hall floor’s barbecue. Ortega had supplied the burgers and barbecue equipment as part of its In Lieu of Meals service.
The service allows groups of residence hall members to have their own barbecue with chips, fruit and dessert instead of a meal in Ortega. When ordering food in lieu of a meal, residents must write on a form whether they need vegetarian or vegan items.
Ortega General Manager Michael Conaway said Bolbat’s floor was supplied with the type of food they requested.
“I looked at the order sheet and basically it said they wanted a vegetarian choice,” Conaway said. “They didn’t say vegan anything.”
Conaway said Bolbat’s complaint is the result of a misunderstanding. Until Bolbat complained, he said Ortega bought vegetarian black bean burgers. He said he thinks Bolbat assumed Ortega was using vegan black bean burgers because Carrillo Dining – where Bolbat ate for freshman orientation – was using vegan black bean burgers.
However, Conaway also said there have been occasions when Ortega managers and employees mislabeled items.
“I think we’ve mislabeled soup,” Conaway said. “Instead of cream of broccoli it was cream of corn. It was more a naming thing as opposed to calling it vegan or vegetarian.”
Ortega Systems Assistant Jason Souza said mislabeling on Ortega’s menu board might have been the result of a customer’s practical joke.
“We have had occasions where students mess with the menu board,” Souza said. “Pranking and joking is pretty common here.”
According to Souza, students have used permanent markers on the board to list items like meatloaf as vegan.
Bolbat said she thought the mislabeling was a mistake but that the burgers were always listed as vegan.
“There’s going to be a certain degree of error in a facility that large,” Bolbat said. “They’re serving four million meals a year. There’s going to be some mistakes – understandable – however, I think it’s a really big mistake that could’ve easily been corrected.”
Bolbat said it has been difficult for her to reach a refund settlement with Dining Services. She wrote an email complaint to the Director of Residential Dining Services Judy Edner, who said she was unable to grant her a refund. Bolbat’s Resident Director then referred her to the Executive Director of Housing and Residential Services Wilfred Brown.
Judy Edner and Wilfred Brown were unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon.
“Willie Brown got the letter and he emailed me back and he said, ‘Sorry, we won’t be honoring your request,'” Bolbat said. “At the time he didn’t really know the full story.”
She said Executive Assistant to the Chancellor Kevin McCauley has facilitated the settlement process. McCauley helped clear up misunderstandings between Dining Services and Bolbat.
“I had a meeting with Willie Brown,” Bolbat said. “He’s very, very upset with what happened. He was really apologetic. Everyone that I’ve talked to has been very apologetic … we’re working out an amount for refunding right now.”
Besides a monetary settlement, Bolbat said Brown thought other students should be informed of the mislabeling. She said telling the students about her situation would encourage them to make suggestions to the dining commons.
“I think there’s room for improvement,” Bolbat said. “If people don’t say the changes they want, it’s not going to happen.”
Conaway said he is more than happy to hear from students.
“We like to think that if [students] have any kind of concern, we’d love for them to say immediately to the supervisor, the lobby, or ask to talk to a manager,” he said. “It helps both sides … it helps us, if there’s a problem, to solve it [immediately].”
Ortega now serves vegan black bean burgers instead of vegetarian. Conaway said Bolbat’s situation made him and other managers at Ortega reconsider their vegan options.
“After we talked to her,” he said, “we decided … to always go to the most stringent [diet] option so that if there’s a choice between a vegetarian or vegan of the same item we’d always have the vegan instead.”
Conaway said he was proud of the variety of vegan items Ortega offers. According to Ortega’s website, the vegan options for this week include the spring bowl salad, black bean burgers, spring bowl paella, sushi rice salad and vegan marinara for the pasta bar.