The Citadel mess hall

Some cadets may participate in a hunger strike and others may boycott The Citadel's Coward Dining Hall. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

After two reported rodent sightings last week and multiple reports of undercooked chicken circulating on social media, some students at The Citadel plan to participate in a hunger strike Wednesday.

While some cadets might participate in the hunger strike, others might boycott the college's mess hall and get food elsewhere, according to a post on the Facebook page "El Cid Memes," a de facto organizer of the strike.  

"In order to send a united message we need to stick together," the post read. 

Col. John Dorrian, the college’s vice president of communication and marketing, said the college is aware of the planned hunger strike and that no disciplinary action will be taken toward students who choose to participate.

The page has posted regularly over the past week, updating users on rodent sightings and other mess hall conditions. A post with photos of undercooked chicken and brown water from a fountain has more than  150 comments and has been shared by other Facebook users almost 120 times.

William Sapp graduated from The Citadel in 2011 and reached out to The Post and Courier after learning about the strike on social media. He supports the students' plan and said the hunger strike is reflective of a larger problem with mess hall conditions.

"The pictures of the food do remind me of my time eating at the mess hall in The Citadel, but I don't ever remember being served brown water," Sapp said. 

Dorrian attributed the brown-colored water to rust that sometimes can accumulate in the pipes of old buildings.

"It's not harmful, but it is gross," Dorrian said. 

Sapp cited rising tuition costs as one factor that may be causing current students to take action. In-state tuition for the 2019-20 school year was just over $30,000 for first-year students and more than $53,000 for out-of-state. Meals at Coward Hall, the college's dining facility, are included in tuition costs, according to Dorrian. 

"You've got kids who have taken out huge student loans to go to the school, and they're so proud to be there because of tradition and everything, but they're living in squalor," Sapp said. "And the administration is doing nothing about it."

First-year cadets are required to report to the mess hall and could be disciplined if they do not show up, but they can't be disciplined if they choose not to eat, Dorrian said. 

"We hear loud and clear that this is a problem. We are going to take action, and we are taking action now as we speak. And we will solve this problem," Dorrian said. 

He said the college's pest control contractor has put additional traps both inside and outside the dining hall. The college's facilities and engineering team has brought in an outside consultant, Steritech, to evaluate potentially vulnerable spaces where pests might be able to enter the building. 

This isn't the first time The Citadel cadets have orchestrated a hunger strike in protest of poor cafeteria conditions. 

In 1928, Thomas Howie, a Citadel student at the time, led a hunger strike to oppose poor mess hall conditions. The strike "resulted in cadets being served stale bread for toast and pitchers of syrup with floating lumps that turned out to be dead flies," according to an address given at the induction of Howie into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2003. 

A picture of a flyer posted on campus Tuesday shared by the Facebook page reads "Pull a Major Howie Boycott Mess," referencing the hunger strike that took place almost a century ago. 

Last week a small, furry animal was caught on film scampering up a door frame in The Citadel's mess hall.

A video of the incident was posted to the Instagram account @barstoolcid on Sept. 9, where it quickly garnered widespread social media attention, racking up around 3,000 views in 24 hours.

Dorrian assured students in a statement issued the same day that team members from the college's food service provider, Sodexo, and supporting contractors took several actions "to assure food safety and quality after cadets and college officials spotted a rodent in Coward Hall."

On Sept. 10, the day after the first rodent was spotted, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control gave the mess hall a score of 96 percent. According to the report, no evidence of "rodent activity" was observed.

But on Sept. 13, four days after the initial rodent sighting, cadets captured another mess hall rodent on film, this one alive, apparently trapped in the slot of an upright toaster. 

"There’s a rat in this toaster,” a male cadet’s voice can be heard saying in the video, posted on the Facebook page Citadel Safari. "It's still alive." 

A second DHEC report, issued the same day as the second rodent sighting, noted a loading door that was not tight fitting and had a gap at the bottom. The report's comments said the problem was corrected and cited documentation of pest control treatment from Sept. 9. The report gave the mess hall an overall score of 93 percent. 

Chris Delcamp, DHEC's public information director, confirmed that department officials had investigated the mess hall twice in the past week.

"While we don't refer to social media for our kind of litmus test, we do look at it as an indicator,"  Delcamp said. "We can take something like that as a complaint. If we see something come up ... that's in question that would be in violation of regulation, we use that as our complaint and we would go out there."

Dorrian encourages students to report any problems they encounter with the mess hall. After the second rodent sighting, the college created a new email account, foodquality@citadel.edu, for cadets to immediately notify management of any mess hall problems. 

"Although you are coming to The Citadel and you're going to be a part of the lifestyle, you still have your First Amendment rights and you're not going to be treated like a number," he said. 

A Sodexo representative did not respond to multiple calls requesting comment before press time. 

Dave Infante contributed to this report. 

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Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.