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In the Kitchens: The Voices in Whitman’s Dining Halls

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Illustration by Asa Mease

Illustration by Asa Mease

What does it mean to be part of a community? Looking around the Whitman campus, it is easy to recognize students, professors and administrators as Whitties. But there is another group at Whitman, rarely seen but essential to the day-to-day life of the college. The staff of Whitman’s dining halls cook, serve, clean and clear the dishes of hundreds of students three times a day. Behind the counter, these men and women do the work needed to keep the college running.

Though working at Whitman holds many benefits––such as free access to campus facilities and free meals from the dining halls––employees also face several challenges. When school is not in session, most employees are temporarily laid off, and while workers appreciate students interacting with them and thanking them for their effort, the student body can be critical of meals that take hours to prepare.

“I think the students need to know that it actually takes a lot of work preparing the food and the meals, putting it out, cleaning it up, putting it out again,” said Crystal Zumwalt, an employee manager for Bon Appétit. “I wish people would appreciate more what we do, because it’s hard … I don’t think [some students] realize how much thought and effort go into planning some of the meals.”

All in the Family

Many of those who work in the dining halls at Whitman are connected to the college through family and friends. Zumwalt began work at Whitman while in high school, moved away for several years and then returned to the College three years ago. Her mother, Julie Zumwalt, is the executive sous chef in Prentiss Dining Hall, and her boyfriend Eric Romine works in Reid Campus Center.

Romine moved to Cafe ’66 in Reid after budget cuts and his lack of seniority led to his getting laid off in Jewett Dining Hall. Fortunately, with Zumwalt’s help, he was able to find a new position across campus. While he is farther from his girlfriend, he is happy to have found stable employment for the time being.

“We all let each other know what’s going on and feed off each other and get advice,” said Romine. “I think the students should all know that we’re all pretty comfortable with each other, and I think everyone really looks forward to going to work and appreciate[s] good feedback and good vibes from the students and coworkers.”

Romine and Zumwalt are expecting their first child in November, and they are already raising Zumwalt’s five-year-old son, Anthony. When both Romine and Zumwalt are at work, Anthony’s grandparents take care of him, but when their next child arrives, they plan to apply for childcare through the Department of Social Health Services.

“[Childcare]’s really expensive to do. It’s a demanding field, definitely, because when we were paying for Anthony to go four to five times a month I think it was around $15o … But things are looking up for us and I think we’ll be pretty comfortable in the position we’ll be in,” said Romine.

Of all the benefits of working in the dining halls, Zumwalt and Romine take advantage of free meals most often, eating dinner together before their shifts begin. While Romine is occasionally able to take advantage of the athletic facilities and library, Zumwalt finds it difficult to put aside time for these things while trying to parent.

“All my free time is usually at the park [with Anthony], playing with the dog or doing something. We just got signed up for tee-ball, so that takes up a lot of my time on days off,” said Zumwalt. “I work at home too. I work all week, and then I get to go home and catch up on laundry and all the housework.”

Unfortunately, like all employees in the Whitman dining halls, the upcoming summer break presents an especially challenging time for Zumwalt and Romine.

“I like it here; it’s just the breaks are the only thing that really get you. Because bills and rent don’t stop coming in over the summer,” said Zumwalt.

Summer is Coming

Zumwalt and Romine hope to find employment over the summer working temporary jobs. While this can be challenging, it can also provide unexpected opportunities which lead away from Whitman. Only a very small number of staff are able to stay on in Prentiss over the summer, helping provide for events and camps which take place on campus.

One of these people is Prentiss employee Tim Laufer. After working 10 years in the dining halls, Laufer has gained enough seniority to stay and cater events from Prentiss when most other workers are laid off. However, no one starts with seniority, and most staff have to find alternate employment.

“[Before I had seniority] I would leave town. I’d save up for a little bit and go live in Spokane with my mother for a little bit. That was a long time ago. Other times I would do under-the-counter jobs, odd jobs here and there, just to make ends meet, and collect unemployment,” said Laufer.

While many employees travel, work odd jobs or fall back on unemployment benefits over summers and breaks, to others these times present opportunities to focus on different pursuits.

Suann Courson, who works in the dish room in Jewett, spends summers helping run her family’s farm, R&R Produce, which sells produce at the Walla Walla Farmers’ Market and delivers fruits and vegetables to Whitman throughout the year.

On top of working in the dining halls and on the farm, Courson is taking courses at Walla Walla Community College to pursue a two-year degree in agricultural farming.

“I’ve always worked with my dad on the farm … When I start back in September or August, from then until the end of October I work seven days a week. I work both jobs. Soon as I get done here I go work on the farm for a couple hours and then take a break [for] an hour, come back here and go to work,” said Courson.

Across the Great Divide

Students and staff see each other many times a day, but interactions between the two vary widely.

“Most [students] are pretty friendly. I try to be friendly … The only thing that really gets on my nerves is the mess,” said Café ’66 cashier Kathy Soyster. “But it’s expected. You’re always going to have one person who isn’t going to follow the rules.”

Interactions with students are important for many employees.

“[There] are the same people who won’t acknowledge me every day, but I still acknowledge them every day. I can’t see people and not say hi to them … Some people are hit-and-miss; it all depends on what their mood is,” said Laufer.

Henry Baumgartner came to Whitman three years ago after gaining experience in white-collar restaurants, and began work as a dinner chef in Jewet. He arrives at noon every day, begins preparing meals for students hours in advance and always aims to make good food.

“Me and my coworkers, when we cook dinners, we really try to make sure things taste good and are appetizing for the students. Even though it doesn’t seem [that way] sometimes, we really do,” said Baumgartner.

Baumgartner’s experience with students has been generally positive and welcoming, and he enjoys interacting with students both as coworkers and customers.

Baumgartner also knows that Whitman students have a diverse array of diets, ranging from vegan to gluten-free, and he supports students’ choices. He wishes the dining halls could provide even more options for those with special diets, especially during holidays.

“I was raised vegetarian, so I have no problem cooking vegetarian foods. I think it’s a good way to go … When I started working here, I expected it to be a much more vegetarian environment. Through the three years I’ve worked here, there’s been more meat demand from the students [than I expected].”

Some younger employees even find time to develop friendships with students outside of work, practicing intramural sports in the athletic facilities or chatting together in the library. However, long hours at odd times can make forming lasting relationships difficult. And while college students only stay for four years, workers in the dining halls may stay only a few months or for over a decade.

“When I get to be friends with some of the students it’s nice, but then you realize that they’re leaving, and once they’re gone you miss them. After a while you have to toughen up and not get quite so attached or friendly. Which might explain why some of our cooks are a little bit aloof,” said Soyster.

What Makes a Whittie?

Whitman ID cards, commonly known as “swipe cards,” are an integral part of many students’ lives. Dining hall employees have their own versions of swipe cards, which provide them access to the library and athletic buildings. As members of the Whitman community, they are also welcome at lectures and events around campus. While some take advantage of these opportunities, other find it difficult to find time in their schedules.

“I could use [the campus facilities], but I use the YMCA [instead] because my kids are in swim classes and I might as well pay for that family membership. Sometimes I don’t like to work out with the students. It can be somewhat of a distraction,” said cashier Sarah Olson.

Despite spending 40 hours a week at Whitman and having access to many of the same resources as students, the term “Whittie” is not commonly applied to workers. Jayne Fontana began work as a barista at Cafe ’66 in Reid this year. Though she grew up on campus (Fontana’s father was a professor at Whitman for 35 years), she went to school at Washington State University and spent years working as an elementary school teacher and in the wine industry before returning to Whitman.

“I definitely support anything that has to do with Whitman, but I didn’t go to Whitman. It’s a great school,” said Fontana.

Whitties or not, workers in Whitman’s dining halls are integral to the functioning of the college. Their experience at Whitman is vastly different from that of students and faculty, and arguably more difficult, because they face potential layoffs and the challenge of keeping up with off-campus commitments, but they manage to overcome these challenges and still prepare thousands of quality meals every day.

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One Response to “In the Kitchens: The Voices in Whitman’s Dining Halls”

  1. English Lessons Days 1 and 2 | [email protected] on June 1st, 2013 3:55 am

    […] copy of the Whitman Pio. We read the first story on the page, which was about Bon Appetit workers (http://whitmanpioneer.com/news/2013/04/25/in-the-kitchens-the-voices-in-whitmans-dining-halls/) and Zar Zar really got into the story. We would pause and discuss the relationship between each […]

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In the Kitchens: The Voices in Whitman’s Dining Halls