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Campus dining halls have been a part of campus life —and students have complained about them —since the earliest days of the university. The second building built on campus, after Old East, was Steward's Hall, which opened in 1795. From the beginning students were unhappy with the food. In petitions to the faculty in 1809, students complained about the quality of food at Steward's Hall, citing "an insufficiency of butter," and beef that is "sometimes tainted, and impregnated with fly-blows." Steward's Hall was eventually leased to a local resident and run as a private business. Many UNC students in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries got their meals from local boarding houses.

In 1898 the university converted an old gymnasium building into a new dining hall known as Commons Hall. Built on the current site of Phillips Hall, Commons served student meals until 1914, when the much more modern Swain Hall opened. Swain was the main campus dining hall for the next twenty-five years. The opinion of the students about the food offered there can be inferred by the nickname then in regular use, "Swine Hall."

Students never warmed to Swain Hall, and the campus soon outgrew the facility. In 1939 the university opened Lenoir Hall, a large, modern space that could seat up to 1,300 students at a time. Following World War II, students began to have multiple options for eating on campus, including the Pine Room, a snack bar in Lenoir, and the Monogram Club. When campus housing expanded to South Campus in the 1960s, student dining followed. The immediately unpopular Chase Hall cafeteria opened in 1965, and some dorms housed dining facilities.

Campus dining facilities were operated by the university until 1969. Almost immediately following a strike of cafeteria workers who were protesting low pay and poor working conditions, the university outsourced campus dining to Saga Corporation, a company that managed campus dining operations at schools around the country. Saga was soon replaced by Servo-O-Mation, then by ARA, which later changed its named to Aramark and has managed dining at UNC for several decades.

One of the strangest periods in campus dining came in 1997, when privately operated food stands were placed around Polk Place to serve hungry students during a major renovation of Lenoir. The booths, which included one dedicated to corn on the cob, made the campus look like a county fair. When Lenoir reopened it was fully modernized and gave students a wide variety of dining options.

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