A New Era of School Lunches for GDS

High school students on the field during lunch. Photo by Kaiden J. Yu.

At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, GDS launched its partnership with local food vendor Meriwether Godsey, based in Lynchburg, Virginia, to provide a new service for GDS students, faculty and staff: school lunches. In 2019, a committee of GDS faculty members in charge of determining GDS’s dining system underwent a rigorous search process to find a partner that fit their needs and desires.

“I understand that there’s some stigma around food service in a school setting,” Meriwether Godsey’s onsite director of dining services at GDS, Alex Buc, said. “And people don’t necessarily know what to expect. I think a lot of people have in their mind’s eye this vision of a 1980s cafeteria, and that’s so far from what we do.”

Upon the initial introduction of Meriwether Godsey’s service, the response from students has been mixed, with all students interviewed by the Bit feeling generally satisfied with the quality of the food. However, individuals did raise concerns about the amount of options provided and the affordability of the dining service.

Freshman Alex Moyer found the food to be better than he assumed it would be and described it as “well above average.” He is happy with the way that Meriwether Godsey provides healthy options to students and thought the variety was pretty good, with the exception of the food items that he noticed are in rotation more than others. An example of an upcoming food option is lemon honey roasted chicken, with a mediterranean caesar salad alternative, being served again on April 19th.

As GDS Director of Operations Kristina Lennox and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Houser decided on what partner company would get to work in the new lower/middle school kitchen and cafeteria, they evaluated the six interested companies on a scorecard which included a few factors key in GDS’s decision making. To Lennox and Houser, Merriwether Godsey stood out for its dependability and dedication to the community.

Lennox said the company’s leadership started coming to GDS’ dining committee meetings after the school decided they were going in the food vendor’s direction. “That really set them apart in terms of what they were able to promise to GDS, getting over the hump of our first initial year with dining,” Lennox said.

Buc described how the role of GDS’s food service has expanded dramatically since the time it was first introduced. In September, before hybrid learning fully kicked in, Meriwether Godsey was serving about 40 children in tents outside the school. Buc now estimates that they have served nearly 700 members of the GDS community. 

Since students and faculty cannot congregate in dining halls due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of the service’s resources are allocated to packaging and delivering the meals. The lack of a buffet-style dining hall experience has also hindered the food service’s ability to accommodate students’ choices, meaning that the types of meals have taken on a level of uniformity. “We’re trying to look at menu planning and meal selection with an eye towards making it approachable to as many people as possible,” Buc said.

Junior Emma Gillespie, a self-proclaimed picky eater, felt that there can sometimes be too much similarity between the foods offered on a given day, even with the alternate meal options provided for people with various dietary restrictions. “For people who don’t like certain things or can’t eat certain things, having just a few more options would be better,” she said.

Meriwether Godsey predicts the meal prices based on the amount of food needed and number of Meriwether Godsey employees required to be cooking. “The good news there is that we’re not paying a fee for things we’re not using,”  Houser said. “And then we make sure that the fee that we’re paying for the meals they produce cover their operations, including the people that work here.”

Students have expressed frustration about the affordability of the meals. Meriwether Godsey is its own for-profit institution that provides a “cost plus” service, meaning GDS reimburses the corporation for the cost of providing the food and issues additional payment to allow for profit.   

The company’s lunches are included as a part of tuition for all in-person students at the lower/middle school, but high school students are charged a fee. Junior Hank Schwabacher ordered the school meals every day at the beginning of the 2021 spring semester but has stopped getting them in the last month. He considered the price of the meals for high school students to be too expensive. “When I found out how much they cost, I told my parents to stop ordering them.” 

Meriwether Godsey’s GDS dining website does not provide pricing information for high schoolers’ meals. 

“I think they probably could have a more affordable option,” Gillespie said, “but I’ve been fine with it.”

Buc hopes to increase communication among students and the food staff, and he believes that connections will grow as students have more opportunities to visit the kitchen. Meriwether Godsey has also described plans to provide cooking classes and teach community members about diets and nutrition. “We’re really eager to get back and to learn more about what the community wants,” he said.