A Well-Intentioned Voyage, Perhaps of Wellness
An email from Dining Ashoka dated August 18th introduced new catering partners Voyage of Wellness (VOW, henceforth) as experts in “wholesome and nutritious” food. The dining services on campus – the mess and The Kitchen Stories (TKS) – were taken over by VOW on August 19th, starting breakfast. Students were informed the change came in light of recognition of the need for “variety and healthier options in meals” on campus. All meal menus have been expanded. Breakfasts now include two types of cereal and new flavours of porridge. Egg curries are prepared in addition to chicken, and exceptionally, even mutton dishes are served. Curd is served daily for lunch, and the evening snack now entails two options.
However, the intimation of the change was accompanied by another email from the Registrar's Office. This email, also dated August 18th, announced significant hikes in the pricing of meal plans accompanying the new caterers. Breakfast is now priced at Rs. 76, lunch and dinner at Rs. 86, and snacks at Rs. 36. In summation, there has been a Rs. 26 increase in breakfast, a Rs. 16 increase in lunch and dinner and a Rs. 7 increase in the cost of snacks.
Causes and Implications of the Price Hike
Eating all four meals at the mess will cost Rs. 284 per day, noticeably higher than the previous Rs. 215. For students who eat all meals at the mess – a significant portion of the Ashokan student body – these changes do not look promising. The impact is likely to be harsher on students on varying degrees of financial aid. These students are much likelier to favour mess food; eating entire meals at other campus outlets can be expensive, particularly on a regular basis.
In light of widespread speculation on the cause for replacing caterers, The Edict reached out to a senior administrative member of the dining staff, who clarified that it is “standard procedure from the higher management to change the caterer every two to three years.” The pandemic significantly delayed this process, he pointed out.
Choosing to remain anonymous, a UG’25 student on financial aid expressed their concerns over the price hike in meal plans, saying, “The lack of clarity is what worries me most. Since the hike was announced just before we moved back in, I am still processing the details of the minimum guarantee and such.” They added that they “are at the mess virtually all the time” and are wondering whether to “cut down” on the number of mess meals they consume now.
The Registrar’s Office justified the upscaled meal fees by attributing it to “inflationary pressures” following a four-year stagnation period wherein meals were charged at old rates. This was in cognisance of the financial shocks of the pandemic on the families of many students.
The senior staff member who spoke to The Edict echoed this sentiment. According to him, in addition to standard inflation costs, price hikes are due to “changes continuously requested by students,” referring to the addition of more protein items, more meats, curd, fruits, etc.
The Kitchen Stories (TKS) is now ‘VOW Spice’, delivering a broader range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian meal combo options across lunch and dinner. It has also extended lunch timings to accommodate students with academic and extracurricular commitments during lunch hours.
The office stated the addition of new items in every meal would “of course” cost more. Owing to the enlarged menu, preparation requires more ingredients and more staff, further adding to the team’s costs.
Additional Outlets: Loko Moko and VOW Cafè
In addition to handling mess catering, VOW has also established an outlet on the ground floor of the mess, ‘Loko Moko’ and in AC04, the ‘VOW Café’. “Obviously for Chai Shai, the vendor [BCH] had to go; so we told [VOW] to set up a small cafe to sell their bakery products,” said the dining officer. “For VOW Café, we had given them [an idea of] the price range. We don’t want it to be too costly, particularly compared to what it was earlier.”
The prices at the cafe, however, are on average higher than when the outlets were run by BCH and Fuel Zone respectively. Sandwiches and croissants sold by the Fuel Zone outlet in the library cafe were priced at around Rs. 60. Now, several variations of sandwiches and sandwich ‘bites’ sold by the VOW outlet fit in the price range of Rs. 80 to Rs. 110. The minimum-sized cappuccino, which cost Rs. 25 previously is now priced at Rs. 60.
“Within the campus, you don’t get handmade coffee; here, we need trained staff to make it,” the dining officer reported. He added that the ingredients that go into making the coffee, ranging from the milk to the coffee beans, are high quality.
Altered Minimum Guarantee Amount
On the other hand, the minimum guarantee amount students have to pay for mess food has significantly decreased. Previously capped at Rs.17,500, it is now Rs.10,000 per semester. The consumption of food beyond this ‘minimum guarantee amount’ (Rs.10,000) will be charged as per the actuals. The impact of the price increase reflects differently for different categories of people.
For the demographic rarely frequenting the mess, save for the Biryani Wednesdays or the Sunday Puris, and for those who return home to NCR and adjacent areas from Thursday night to Monday morning, the minimum guarantee looks quite promising. Instead of being charged substantially for meals they did not consume, they will now be charged a more reasonable amount.
On the other hand, for ‘loyal patrons’ of the mess, food bills will likely skyrocket starting this semester. Across seventy-eight working days, the cumulative cost of consuming all meals at the mess amounts to Rs. 22,152.
Student Opinions on Enhanced Menu: Freshmen and Seniors
Does the price hike have a valid payoff? The new plans certainly offer more options as part of every meal. “Compared to the horror stories I have heard about other colleges and their mess food, Ashoka is significantly better,” said Ria Agrawal, UG’27. Appreciating the myriad options Ashoka seemed to offer in terms of mess food, she noted in particular that “The breakfast is pretty good, with a variety of hot and cold items.”
A component of the previous question that remains to be answered is whether there has been any change in the nutrition quotient delivered by the different schemes offered by the mess; a particularly relevant metric for a catering service that goes by the name “Voyage of Wellness.” The mess food provides a relatively balanced meal plan, with portions of dal, paneer or chicken, and salads accompanying the carbs in every meal. Can the same be said of VOW Spice? The increase in choice has clearly appealed to a number of students, who vie the Spaghetti in Tomato Basil Sauce and the Parotta served up. Peak times are now characterised by lines extending up to the coupon printers and glass doors. “I frequent VOW Spice on most days, other than when the mess offers interesting desserts,” said Agrawal. However, even that level of choice becomes bland and repetitive at the end of the week, she stated.
While appreciating the VOW “initiative” Agrawal terms the VOW Spice food “tasty but misleading,” explaining that they advertise their wellness quotient, but serve oily, spicy and gluten-rich combos.
Commenting on the “healthiness” of VOW café menu items, one UG '25 student commented, “Those shawarmas are extremely oily; they have more oil than all the items in Fuel Zone combined.” Supplementing pesto chicken pasta and mango blueberry oats, other items on offer include peri peri loaded mac and cheese fries, ham and cheese sandwiches and burgers served with generous helpings of mayonnaise and other miscellaneous thick sauces.
Viraat Arora, UG’27, had a standard to bank Ashoka food against; he comes from a high school with mess catering. Sympathising with the huge number of people whose needs are catered to by the mess, Arora applauded “the great quality that they deliver on most days.”
A UG’24 who stayed back for the summer semester noted the stark difference in the food offered by the two caterers, emphasising the inclusion of more South Indian menu items. “I appreciate that there is a lot of variety now, and the food is on most days really good, in terms of quality,” they said, adding they “really like the Chicken Chettinad.”
As someone who is “fitness conscious and regularly works out,” Arora mentioned he did not feel “[his] protein needs were fulfilled in their entirety,” particularly through vegetarian options. He however expressed appreciation for the fulfilling breakfasts and varied salad options for lunch and dinner. The UG’24 student appreciated the many initiatives the mess seems to be taking in this regard, particularly “drinks on hot days” and “meat served frequently.”
The dining officer talked about the relative complications in the food preparation process now and said it was “in an effort to accommodate everyone’s needs.” He affirmed the persistent efforts of the dining team to accommodate student concerns and demands. Their willingness to incorporate items requested by students into the weekly menus more often is unfortunately hindered by logistical and financial constraints, he said.
He further requested that the students keep up their end in sustainable consumption. “Food wastage has increased by nearly 400 kgs since the new semester started,” he rued. “Cooks work hard to prepare the food; it holds in their hard work as well as their emotion.”