Dining Services reevaluates 5-meal plan

Williams College Dining Services is examining the pricing structure of its meal plans and will lower the current cost of the new “seniors only” five-meal plan. There is no final decision about the measures to be taken, but Director of Dining Services Jim Hodgkins noted, “We’re making changes with an eye to fairness. We don’t have all the details worked out yet, but expect to do so next week.”

Currently, the full-board plan costs $3390 a year and allows a student to eat 693 meals a year in the dining hall. The five-meal plan, which allows for 170 meals a year, costs $1850.

Under this scheme, each meal on the full board plan costs $4.89 while each meal purchased on the five-meal plan costs $10.88. This struck many seniors on the five-meal plan as unfair, because dinner, the most expensive meal, when purchased on its own only costs $8.85.

Jonathan Plowman ’00, chose the five meal plan because he enjoys cooking for himself, but resented the high price of the plan. “Each week, I am paying $11 each for my 5 Dining Services meals, and I am given a refund of $2.75 each with which to buy the other 16 meals,” said Plowmen. “ I recognize that Dining Services has operating costs which must be covered. But this isn’t a rational pricing system; it’s a huge financial pressure to be on the bigger meal plans.”

When students switch from the full-board meal plan to the partial board plan, dining services calculates the reimbursements in the following way: Dining services assumes students on the 21-meal plan only consume 463 of the 693 available meals. Students on the five-meal plan have 170 available meals. To calculate the reimbursements, dining services subtracts the 170 from the assumed 463 meals. Students are thus only reimbursed for 293 meals. The dining services reimbursed those 293 meals at the rate of the full board plan which gives students less money per meal for fewer meals. The apparent problem with this method is that students on the five-meal plan are not getting reimbursed for 230 of the meals that they are not eating.

Currently, 66 percent of students are on the full board plan, 12 percent on the 14-meal plan, 19 percent on the ten-meal plan and three percent on the five-meal plan. Hodgkins noted “there was a time at Williams when students had to choose either 21 meals or zero meals. We’re a lot more flexible now.”

Throughout this semester, a number of seniors petitioned dining services, met with Hodgkins and Vice President for administration Helen Ouellette to discuss the pricing system. The seniors wanted to be on the meal plan with the fewest meals, in order to cook for themselves as a group. They were frustrated by the high price of the plan. Initially, Dining Services defended its position on the basis that the fixed costs to Dining Services, utilities, repairs, etc., are the same whether a student is on the 5 or full board meal plan.

Ethan Plunkett ’00 said “I’m very pleased that they’ve made these changes, I just wish they hadn’t taken so long to do so.”

The five-meal plan is one of a number of new offerings from Dining services this year. Greylock dining hours have also been expanded; the Underground Express, a grab-and-go lunch option, has been refurbished; the 21-meal plan now allows unlimited access to the dining halls between 7:15 and 2:00; there is a “Deli” lunch at Dodd Monday through Thursday; the full and 14-meals plans come with free guest meals, 10 per semester for the full board and six for the 14-meal plan.

Hodgkins noted, “This amount of change is typical. In order to meet the needs and expectations of our customers, we need to change.”

Hodgkins cited the acceptance of the Underground Express and the renovation of Dodd as two of his favorite changes. Attendance at Dodd is up dramatically with lunch now averaging about 175 students, as opposed to 90 last year. Hodgkins also expressed satisfaction with the new guest meals.

“If your parents, who pay for you to come here, are visiting, it’s nice for them not to have to pay to eat with you in the dining hall,” he said.

Hodgkins gave much of the credit to the Student Dining Committee for developing the ideas for these changes.

“For the last couple of years, the committee has been very serious and very productive. They’ve really been there for us,” he said.

Looking to the future, Hodgkins added, “There’s a consensus that we should change. We’re always thinking about what to do. We want to offer a broader variety, each dining hall may not offer all of the same things as all the others. We might change the service style and have different areas such as a bakery area, a deli area and so on.”

Hodgkins noted “We are looking for ways of changing that won’t detract from the ease and comfort of the learning that goes on in a residential dining system. I’m really pleased to see people lingering in the dining hall an hour, an hour and a half. Dining rooms are a very important base of residential life.”