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Focus Groups Focus on Food

Parkhurst is gathering student input in an attempt to ensure that planned renovations to Dining Services meet the expectations of the entire Saint Vincent Community. In addition to administering surveys, the company is teaming up with students from two classes--cultural anthropology and marketing research--to gather information both to aid in the renovations and further the aims of those courses.

​Dr. Elaine Bennett teaches the cultural anthropology class engaged in assessing possible cafeteria modifications.

“We are partnering with Parkhurst, sort of as a consulting team,” she said.

It might appear odd for an anthropology class to conduct research on a business research, but in fact, Bennett explained, that merely leads to a unique approach to examining what students want--an approach that examines the human needs of students rather than statistics or efficiency.

“We’re doing this from the perspective of cultural anthropology, so understanding how people think about and behave in and experience the world around them. We’re trying to avoid that sort of customer-satisfaction survey thing. We’re more interested in students’ experience in terms of ‘what kind of experience are you looking for when you are eating on a college campus?’ because food and mealtime is such an important part of people’s social lives. So how does the setup of the cafeteria facilitate or non-facilitate people sitting with groups of friends--or just finding a quiet place to eat and being able to hang out for a little while? So one of our objectives focuses on understanding space use in the cafeteria and the flow of the seating,” she said.

They have other goals as well, Bennett explained. For example, the class is examining how students approach meals and nutrition--what students value, how they look at building their meals, and so forth. They want to see what kinds of frequently-used healthy eating buzzwords actually connect with students. For example, she explained, something like “cage-free eggs” doesn’t mean that chickens are outside but rather indoors, just without cages--which may actually lead to a higher mortality rate. Do students understand or want to know about these kinds of things?

The research doesn’t merely benefit Parkhurst, though. Bennett hopes the class can present its research at the annual meeting for the Society for Applied Anthropology next spring.

“We would be presenting our case to professionals and listening to other projects done by other people and schools,” said Patrick Spollen, a sophomore anthropology major who’s taking the class and conducting research.

In that way, their findings may have a broader impact than merely affecting Saint Vincent. Results won’t be available for some time, though, he explained.

The renovations will apply to the Shack as well as the cafeteria. Three students in Dr. Thomas Cline’s marketing research class are investigating that aspect of dining services, albeit from a marketing rather than an anthropological standpoint. Junior marketing major Brendan Shaughnessy is leading a group that also includes senior marketing majors Zach Folk and Zach Altieri.

“We ran focus groups and now we are developing surveys for the Shack to help them improve overall quality. [We ran the focus groups] to know what kinds of questions to ask. We’re going to present our end results to the head of Parkhurst dining at the end of the semester,” Shaughnessy said.

They’re using social media to find respondents, he explained.

While survey results are not yet available, the group observed various trends among student concerns while conducting focus groups.

“A lot of people have been interested in breakfast sandwiches at the Shack as an alternative to the Shack. A few people have been interested in a ‘Shack app’ where people can pre-order food and stuff. [Cash/flex pricing and meal limits] were a big problem in our focus groups. A lot of people thought that meals should be raised to, like, seven dollars instead of $5.90,” he said.

Shaughnessy expects Parkhurst to actually attempt to implement some of the suggestions they come up with. He’s personally invested in the project, he said, because both his parents attended Saint Vincent and he feels the need to give something back to a community that has been central to his family.

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