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Self-catering, revisited

In a recent musing, I discussed my difficulty in delegating self-catering responsibilities for the CS Extras series. One of my readers provided an interesting comment.

I’m sure there’s more to it than this simple issue, but I find it kind of sad that budgets won’t support the use of the College’s own dining services for catering their own events.

I would say that although it may not be all that complicated, a variety of issues come into play. In part, it’s that the College’s budget process is not particularly agile. In part, it’s that the department does not always consider other options. In part, it’s that I’m stubborn. In part, it’s that processes are not always transparent. In part, it’s a question of what people value (or value enough to spend money on.)

Of those, the budget process is the most complex, so I’ll give an overview. We propose our budgets for a fiscal year (July through June) in November. At that point, we don’t necessarily have a good picture of what is happening in the current year, let alone what might happen in the following year. The College generally expects that academic departments will not change their total budgets from year to year. We are allowed to shift money within our budget, but our budgets generally don’t grow much.

Now, let’s consider the events we self-cater.

The senior breakfast. Last year, two issues significantly affected our costs: We tripled the number of majors and catering raised the price of catered continental breakfast (one starch, fruit, drink) from $6.40 per person to $8.40 per person. So, our costs when from about $320 (50 people at $6.40 each) to $1260 (150 people at $8.40 each). The budgeting process did not allow us to have another $900 this year, so the Dean and I agreed that we’d go a bit over on budget, but not that far over. Last year, when we used College Catering (I did not know they had raised the price), I was surprised at how little food they provided. One bagel or sweet roll, a bit of fruit, and a drink does not always go that far. We were further affected because they gave us too little fruit and they would not bring us more [1]. The stubborn part of me said, I can get much more food for much less money. I was right. If the Dean was willing to come up with the extra $800 or so to allow us to use College Catering for the 170 or so I predict for spring 2018 [2], I will admit that I can see better uses for those funds within the department, such as another peer educator.

The Stats/Math/CS picnic. Until spring 2016, Dining Services allowed departments to turn in student meal card numbers in exchange for food for a department picnic. We’d give them a list of numbers, they’d give us a bunch of food which we would then cook. So, in that sense, we partially self-catered, even when we used Dining Services. Dining Services changed that policy last spring (although they did not notify departments [3]). We can use student meal card numbers for $2.50 credit toward the $11.95 or so for a catered picnic [4] or we can encourage students to use take-out containers for the picnic [5]. Similar issues come into play here: The College does not want to increase our budget by the $2,000 or so that it would take to cater picnics under the new policy and neither the Dean nor the department consider the picnics worth that expense. Picking up at McNally’s is not much different than picking up from Dining Services. The bigger issue we face right now is that students are bad at responding, so we had many more people at the picnic than we expected and someone had to run off to get more food.

CS extras. We’ve always self-catered the CS extras. We didn’t know that we could use College Catering when we started CS extras, and catering for talks was not part of the department’s initial budget. John Stone has seemed happy to pick up the food for CS Extras [6] and we get a wider variety of options for less money [8].

Division meetings. I don’t know the reasons that the Dean’s office decided to stop paying for College Catering at Division meetings. I expect that there was a sense that it was not worth the cost. I have heard that we are again allowed to use College Catering. However, at this point, it feels like self-catering provides us with a wider variety of options. My students also enjoy the leftovers. We’ll see what happens when I go on leave.

Candidate lunches. If I’m not mistaken, these usually cannot be catered. So the options are using the dining hall or self-catering. Candidates have a better experience if we self-cater, and I’d like candidates to have the best possible experience.

Candidate talks. This is a situation in which I’m being stubborn. The Dean’s office will pay for College Catering for candidate talks. But I had awful experiences with College Catering - because candidates are often scheduled with only a few days notice, Catering is often unable to add talks to their schedule. And, as I noted in the previous musing, they canceled on the same day as a talk. I’d rather prepare in advance for four talks than cater three and panic and rush at the last minute for one talk.

That’s about it. In some cases (Candidate talks, Division meetings), the College would pay the cost of College Catering. In others (CS extras, the picnic, the Senior breakfast), it’s not clear that Catering is worth the cost. And, as you can tell, I’m a bit of a control freak.

[1] I understand that Catering is overwhelmed on graduation day, so it is understandable that they could not bring more. But, as the person serving, it was frustrating.

[2] That’s $800 beyond the $600 or so we will use to self-cater.

[3] Or, as I review my notes, their own staff. After we placed our order last spring, we got a message from one of our ASA’s that So I just received a phone call from [person] in catering. It appears that [they] just found out yesterday that they were no longer going to be doing picnics.

[4] As a parent of College students, I also find it frustrating that a meal I pay $14 for ends up giving only $2.50 of credit. I somewhat understand the issues involved (in particular, Dining Services has overhead, even if students don’t eat in the dining hall), but it’s frustrating.

[5] Doesn’t that sound great? Come to the Stats/Math/CS Picnic! Bring your own food from the dining hall. [Followup rant elided.]

[6] Hmmm … I could have a student assistant walk to McNally’s [7]. I wonder whether that’s acceptable to the powers that be? It’s not the best idea in Winter, but might work for the other times of the year.

[7] Having the student assistant walk is Michelle’s idea.

[8] If I recall correctly, a typical talk costs about $200 to cater with a cheese tray, a cookie tray, and drinks. Catering prices do not seem to be available online, so I can’t be sure. When we self-cater, we usually spend under $50.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-05-28.