Meal plans at TU inadvertently make eating more difficult for students.
On campus, the dining options are extremely important, especially for students without means of transportation or food. Unless somebody wants to invest a good amount of money and time into walking a mile to the nearest grocery store to buy and prepare food or order from grubhub, the options can really be limited.
Currently, there are five different meal plans. Three are called the bronze, silver and gold plans, though their names don’t necessarily mean that they are better than each other. The gold plan has the most meal swipes, but the least amount of dining dollars. The bronze plan is the opposite; it has the most dining dollars at the cost of the least meal swipes. Finally, the third year options are closer to the bronze plan in design, featuring less meal swipes and dining dollars.
According to the coordinator of Campus Services, Aschley Choate, “Dining Dollars and meal trades are offered as an added convenience to allow for maximum flexibility of the meal plans.” They do function as intended to a degree. There is almost always a dining option open throughout the week, so there is always somewhere to eat from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Unfortunately, there are too many circumstances where the use of a meal trade is logistically more difficult to manage than simply using dining dollars. Because the meal swipes have a designated cooldown period before use, students must find three different periods of time where they may use their meal swipe. For example, only one meal swipe can be used in the breakfast hours in the morning, and only one lunch swipe could be used in the lunch hour.
During a weekday, that’s not too much of an issue. Sure, somebody may miss out on breakfast or may forget a lunch every now and then, but there’s always something open where you can grab food really quickly. The TU dining app is even better, closing service as late as 11 p.m. There isn’t too much of an issue with finding dining options throughout a school day.
However, even though there may be few issues with finding options, finding satisfying options always seems to be a hit or miss. When asked about how meal plans benefit a student’s eating habits, Choate said, “We believe the meal plans allow students the convenience and flexibility to access a wide variety of options to meet their nutritional and dietary needs.” In response to that, there are diverse options but only at the right time. Most of the options in the Student Union are only open from about 10 a.m. to about 3 p.m. throughout the week, so when lunchtime rolls around, there are options galore. However, the ones that remain open aren’t necessarily satisfying options, either. Talking with some of my fellow peers, I’ve heard people shirking their meal plans simply because they didn’t like the selection of food that day or hated one or all three of the options around dinnertime.
In a way, it almost reflects a similar problem that occurred in relation to school lunches in high school. Because the lines were too long and the food was dissatisfying, it led to a lot of people simply skipping meals to avoid the inconvenience of waiting a really long time for food not worth eating. It takes more than mediocre food to bring students to take advantage of their meal plan; it has to be either good enough or convenient enough that students want to eat it.
It seems conceited to complain about food and how it tastes at first glance. Food ultimately is meant to nourish, so criticizing the taste of food almost seems like I’m reaching for more than what I’m paying for. However, every option available should have to be at least pleasant enough to eat so that it encourages students to want to use their meal plan. As it is, the meal blocks in which students can use one meal swipe already does a lot to discourage spending the meal swipes, so there has to be a strong selling point to spend a meal swipe on certain options. Since meal plans are mandatory for nearly all first year students, there needs to be a sense of returned value for actually taking advantage of the meal plans.
Even though the options work alright on any given weekday, weekends are a lot more difficult to manage. Pat Case Dining Center and the other dining options have very limited hours, not even starting until close to noon. This is where the cooldown periods of a meal plan really bare its teeth. Logistically, breakfast options are really limited to only brunch hours, and food options don’t really open up until closer to 5 p.m. Since there isn’t any other food program to supplement students over the weekends, students are encouraged to find meals off of campus during the weekend. This is a shame since the students that really do need the food on a weekend are basically left to fend for themselves for a few days. For me personally, I’m left with one meal a day over the weekend from the school, so I have to buy four meals worth of food from nearby grocers about a mile away. Since I don’t have a car, it makes getting food logistically more difficult, and I don’t doubt that others have similar experiences.
For the people who really do need to take advantage of the meal plans, the on-campus options may be one of the few legitimately practical ways to eat, and it would really benefit the students if diverse options were still around for students over the weekend because that’s the period of time when it’s most difficult to find a meal.
Due to the lack of options for meal swipes during those hours, the power of dining dollars really sets in here. The TU dining app doesn’t accept a meal swipe for any of the mobile dining services using Pat Case’s ghost kitchen, and meal swipes don’t work on vending machines or extra options in places like Chick-Fil-A or Subway. Since dining dollars have that capability, they are more robust and useful. Therefore, it’s ironic that the gold plan can unintentionally make dining a lot more difficult than going with a bronze plan due to there being less of the more powerful dining dollars.
Even as robust as the dining dollars are, they don’t seem to help too much when it comes to food. As it is, the average meal is about $8-$10 for a small lunch option. However, if you use the TU dining app, then a meal with fries and a burger or cheesesteak can easily be almost $20. That means that on any given day, especially if you’ve picked a bronze plan, you could be spending almost $30 for two extra meals. It’s almost required as well; unless you want to dine on pop tarts or some Doritos from a vending machine, there is still a lack of diverse options to get you through the weekend.
If the meals are pricey, then it might make sense to upgrade to plans with more meals, but that also seems shady at best. A student should be able to reliably have access to two to three meals a day, easily, and that should be a baseline. It would make sense to have a gold plan that rewards the customer with meals beyond two per day, but a cheaper meal plan shouldn’t make food more of a struggle as it is now.
After speaking with Choate about the goals of the meal plan, she said that Sodexo’s goals are “To provide a wide variety of options to meet the dietary needs of all diners.” At the very least, it would be nice to know how the meal plans were designed to be spent so that students have a good idea of how to use their meal plans because the current plans as they stand leave me hungry for more. Having enough meals for the day shouldn’t be a reward for upgrading, and if that is so, then the plans should be clearly advertised as such.
It’s great that this is a problem that Sodexo has at least acknowledged. Sodexo is looking into changing how dining dollars are allocated into each meal plan, offering more flexibility for how somebody plans their meals for the day. Furthermore, Pat Case Dining Center would become unlimited access for gold members, or “Tier 3” members in the new plan. This justifies the extra price tag for students. It’s a good sign that there is at least recognition of the harmful “pay to eat” model, and it leaves me cautiously optimistic.