7NEWS Investigates student concerns about food safety at UMass Lowell

LOWELL, MASS. (WHDH) - Fed up students at UMass Lowell say millions of dollars from taxpayers and their tuition are being wasted on food that they can’t eat — and now that 7NEWS Investigates got involved, the university is threatening to cut ties with its food provider if the issues aren’t addressed.

A 7NEWS investigation of the food being served at the university uncovered mold, worms, and purple-colored undercooked chicken.

Freshman Matt Gorham is among those sounding off, saying, “We just want food that’s edible.”

Freshman Ronan Rogier agreed, saying, “It’s not healthy, it’s not safe.”

These students, and their classmates, are so upset with the food being offered in their dining halls, hey sent 7NEWS videos and pictures taken last semester, that show bugs in their pasta, black substances on their lettuce, and worms in their broccoli.

“It got so bad they had to stop serving broccoli because they always had bugs in them,” said sophomore Nate Polgreen.

University Dining stopped serving the broccoli in November, stressing that “food safety is always a top priority.”

How much does the food cost?

In addition to being grossed out, students say they are paying a lot of money for food they can’t eat.

Meal plans at UMass Lowell range from $4,500 to $5,000 a year. Freshmen are required to get one.

“It’s undercooked, it’s moldy, it’s even been soggy a few times when it’s not supposed to be,” Rogier said.

Gorham added, “What we are spending on that meal plan each semester, is unacceptable for this food.”

Although students say most of the problems come from Fox Hall, many say it’s a campus-wide issue.

Freshman Paige Newell says she got food poisoning after eating raw chicken.

“Once I went in and I was getting the chicken bones, and it was completely red on the inside,” she said.

And despite speaking to managers at Fox Hall, Newell said she still got undercooked meat.

“She basically blamed the quality of the chicken,” she said. “She says it’s a weird brand.”

All the food is purchased and prepared by Aramark Education Services, a national company that UMass Lowell paid $18.5 million for this school year.

Previous problems

Students created a petition in fall 2018 citing several issues with the food — and the university said changes were made.

But students say the problems returned after a month.

“It just keeps happening and happening,” Newell said.

City of Lowell Inspectional Services

A day after 7News Investigates shared the pictures and videos with the City of Lowell’s Inspectional Services in December, they conducted inspections at Fox Hall, and Southwick Dining. They found no violations, saying “verified staff were using proper cooking times and temperatures.”

But the day after that inspection, Paige sent us a photo she says shows undercooked ground meat.

An inspector with the city says anyone with a complaint about the food can file a complaint here.

Aramark responds

Aramark refused our request to talk on-camera, instead of issuing a statement, saying “Our top priority is to ensure a positive, safe, and healthy dining environment for the entire UMass Lowell community and we will continue to give this matter our constant attention. We maintain rigid food safety operating procedures for the entire flow of food production. This includes providing an environment that protects the safety and integrity of food from its delivery, throughout its storage, preparation, transport, and ultimately, to the point of service to the customer. We encourage anyone with a concern about their dining experience to contact any of our Managers on Duty in the dining location so that we can provide immediate attention to any concerns, comments or suggestions on the spot.”

The company did not answer follow-up questions.

UMass Lowell takes action

7News asked UMass Lowell officials several times for an on-camera interview, starting in the first week of December. They told us for weeks no one was available.

In a statement, Jonathan Strunk, executive director of communications, told us “UMass Lowell expects the highest quality food service in student dining. In every instance where we have time, date and location information on an issue, we take action. Recent photos and videos shared on social media are being addressed with our food service provider Aramark. We regularly engage with students to obtain feedback and recommendations for dining improvements and do not believe these images reflect the typical dining experience. However, any negative incident is unacceptable and we will continue to demand the excellence our students deserve.”

We kept asking for an interview.

On Dec.19, the university emailed us a letter they sent to Aramark on the same date.

It’s a letter from UMass Lowell’s senior vice chancellor, calling the company’s “recent performance, unacceptable” and demanding Aramark come up with immediate steps to fix the problems. The university ends the letter saying all options are being considered, including terminating the contract with Aramark.

Other UMass Lowell steps

UMass Lowell says in the past year they have also established a Student Dining Committee that meets every month.

The Committee includes students, the university and Aramark representatives. They also told us there is a “secret shopper” program to conduct periodic audits of the quality of the food and the dining experience.

Students can submit comments online at dining@uml.edu, and the university says they will continue to meet individually and in groups with students to listen to and address concerns regarding food quality.

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