Dishwashing problem pushes Prentiss Dining Hall to paper products for week

Emily Lin-Jones

A water heating malfunction forced Prentiss Dining Hall to replace their standard reusable tableware with disposable plates, bowls, cups and utensils for 10 days. Though the issue appears to have been at least temporarily resolved as of Oct. 11, and plastic plates have been restored to their place in the dining hall, maintenance workers and dining hall management are still working to identify the root of the problem.

Prentiss Dining Hall had to use disposable tableware when a water issue halted the usual sanitation process of dishes and utensils. The storeroom holds boxes of paper plates and cups in case of future situations like this. Photos by cade beck.

“It seems to be doing better, but we’re not exactly sure why,” said Susan Todhunter, manager of Prentiss Dining Hall.

Dining hall staff first identified the problem on Sept. 21, when the rinse water used in the kitchens failed to heat to a sterilizing temperature of 180 degrees. According to maintenance supervisor Randy Coleman, the issue stems from mechanical issues with Prentiss’ high-efficiency boiler.

“We’ve been in contact with the manufacturer, and we’re trying to get answers on how to fix it,” he said. “We’ve been doing several things to help, but the real solution is to find out why the boiler’s not putting out as much heat as it’s supposed to be putting out.”

Greg Eickhoff ’15 serves John Mighell ’13. Prentiss is now using its regular dishes again.

Temporary measures, like adjustments to prevent cold water from leaking into the system, seem to have helped alleviate the problem for the time being. According to Coleman, a more permanent solution should happen in the weeks to come.

The under-heated water persisted for approximately a week and a half, preventing the dining hall from offering reusable plates to students during that time due to sanitation concerns.

“We have a responsibility to keep everybody safe, and that was my first concern,” said Todhunter.

Paper products constituted the bulk of the replacement items. For a short time after the water heating problem began, Styrofoam bowls and plastic utensils were offered as well, though they were soon replaced by paper products and a return of reusable silverware. According to Todhunter, the kitchens devised a system early on to clean silverware by submerging it in sanitizing fluid, bypassing the need for rinse water. This allowed the dining hall to quickly return to using metal utensils, although they were unable to develop a similar method to clean dishes, cups and other items without sufficiently heated rinse water.

The use of disposable products for such a long period raised the concern of several students, especially residents of Prentiss Hall and nearby Anderson Hall who often frequent the dining hall for meals.

First-year Nick Hochfeld, a “Green Leader” for his section in Anderson, encouraged other student patrons of the dining hall to bring their own dishware while the shortage persisted. Hochfeld made announcements in his section meeting and on the Class of 2016 Facebook page, but said he was disappointed in the results.

“Not as many [brought plates] as I would have liked. A few did,” he said. “There wasn’t a ton of response to [my post], which was too bad.”

A high temperature water system, used here by Darlene Johnson, usually keeps dishes clean.

Hochfeld was surprised by the relative lack of concern in a student body whose members try to be as sustainable as possible.

“It seems like Whitman students would be a little less apathetic,” he said. “[But] it’s understandable, because [bringing plates] is inconvenient.”

Todhunter acknowledged the sustainability concerns raised by the dining hall’s use of disposable products and the cost of the materials to Bon Appétit, but said that there was no way around it due to sanitary regulations.

“I don’t like using the paper [products] any more than people like me using it,” she said. “But my first responsibility is to make sure that we’re not serving anything on things that aren’t sanitary.”