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Housing and Dining adjusts to supply chain issues, increased inflation

Channing Wang / Thresher

By Emily London     1/25/22 11:10pm

Housing and Dining staff have adjusted their practices to find alternatives for hard-to-get ingredients and to save costs in the face of nationwide shortages of various food products and a rise in inflation, according to David McDonald, senior director of Rice Housing and Dining. 

McDonald said that they’ve had to look for different suppliers and change recipes because Rice’s typical suppliers have had shortages of or significantly higher prices for standard items recently. 

According to McDonald, one item in particular that H&D has struggled to find is palm plates, which are the standard for disposable plates in all the serveries.

“You don’t see palm plates anymore,” McDonald said. “We just can’t get them. Nobody can get them.”

To address this issue, H&D staff looked for items that are as similar as possible to palm plates in terms of quality and compostability. 

“It’s not as pretty, it’s not as durable as the palm, but it’s the best we could do in this situation,” McDonald said. “The cost is much higher too, but that’s the way it is.”

McDonald said that certain ingredients, such as beef, have faced significant price increases in the past year, making it difficult for the serveries to afford serving them in the same quantity as before. The price of food items increased by an average of seven percent over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and beef specifically increased by close to 20 percent. 

To deal with these increases, chefs have changed the way they prepare these proteins; rather than serving whole steaks, as they’ve sometimes done in the past, meals will use smaller portions of beef and supplement it with other ingredients, according to McDonald. 

“The good news is that we have really fabulous chefs,” McDonald said. “They know how to modify recipes, they know how to lay out a menu for a given week that will be a good menu but also will keep our costs down.”

McDonald said that, though meal plan costs for the 2022-2023 school years are not finalized, H&D will not be raising prices more than they would in a typical year. Currently, the full meal plan for a student living on campus costs $2,350 per semester. Rather than passing the costs of inflation onto students, chefs are encouraged to be creative with their recipes and work with whatever ingredients they are able to get their hands on, McDonald said. 

In the first two weeks of the semester, H&D also saved costs by keeping certain serveries closed. Jorge Arnez, a Brown College freshman, said that he has not noticed any major changes with the food that the servery has offered this semester, but is glad that North Servery, which is closest to his residential college, is open again.

“It’s all just the same stuff from last semester,” Arnez said. “I haven’t noticed any drastic changes.”

Eylen Tekin, co-director of the master’s program in industrial engineering, said lockdowns and an economic slowdown led to decreased production, meaning that suppliers struggled to keep up with demand when spending increased and have been working through a backlog. These difficulties are a large part of Rice’s difficulty in finding supplies, she said.

Tekin, who is currently teaching a course on supply chain management, said he believes that uncertainty around supply and increased transportation costs are a large part of Rice’s supply issue.

“In a regular time, supply chains operate efficiently and can be flexible against a possible disruption at some point in the network,” Tekin said. “The pandemic caused shortages in raw materials, manufacturing and transportation, and hence, affected the whole supply chain at the same time.”  

According to Tekin, labor shortages also impact supply chain shortages and prices. There is a shortage of truck drivers, as many workers move to jobs with a lower risk of coronavirus or call out sick. With fewer drivers, transportation costs have almost tripled since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Tekin, and it is more difficult to transport products to the places they need to go.

With the amount of uncertainty currently in the market, McDonald said that he is worried about how prices and inflation will look in the future.

“It’s a well-orchestrated dance between what’s going on in the market, adjusting to real-time problems, adjusting to real-time outages, but also predicting the future,” McDonald said. “We’ve seen beef spikes like this before, but we knew that within about three years prices would level out. We don’t know what the future looks like right now.”

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