The dish on dining

Last year during Winter Study, I took a course called “Entrepreneurship as an Art Form.” The final project in class was to start a hypothetical business. It was during this time that I first studied in detail Dining Services and the College’s meal plans. I would like to preface this analysis by commenting that Dining Services and the College do students a great service by offering three square meals a day at a price that is hard to beat. The fact remains, however, that a lot of money is wasted by students simply because they don’t know all the facts. At a time when many students and families are trying to find ways to cut back or spend more responsibly, it doesn’t make sense to pay extra money for food they aren’t eating.

According to the neighborhood report released this past fall, the Dean’s Office estimates that the average upperclassman on the 21 meal plan eats between 16 and 17 meals a week – thereby paying for $1700 worth of unconsumed food each year. The result is that the College is making about $2 million every year from meals paid for but never redeemed.

In trying to understand the system, I broke down meal plan expenditures. The dining halls charge about $4.50 for breakfast, $7.50 for lunch and $13 for dinner. Students who frequent Snack Bar might notice the discrepancy between what they pay for dinner and the $7 they get at Snack Bar when they skip dinner at the dining halls. This means every time a student gets Snack Bar the College makes $6 off him or her. The school further benefits whenever students miss a meal, since the College gets all the money and students end up a meal poorer. The money paid toward meal plans is irretrievable once the semester starts, so every missed meal is money lost.

What Dining Services does is smart: They know that most students, a couple of weeks into the semester, start skipping breakfast more than other meals. In response, Dining Services charges students next to nothing for their breakfasts. They know that many students, given a choice, would prefer to drop from the 21 to the 14 meal plan. How much does a student save by dropping a full seven meals, a third of their swipes each week? A measly $300 for the entire year – out of the $5100 spent on food for a year on the 21-meal plan. This $4.50 per breakfast charge may seem like a great deal, but in reality it acts more as a barrier to dropping in meal plan than anything else.

From basic psychology, the College knows that the further removed one is from the payment process, the less one treats something like actual money. As a result, the cost of the food is placed on students’ term bills where, in many cases, parents will pay for it and will never think about what is being spent. If students had to physically hand money to Dining Services for every meal they paid, whether they ate it or not, which is essentially what happens on the 21 meal plan, they would quickly notice the loss. By transferring the payment process from students to parents the College neatly skirts this issue. As a profit-maximizing one, this strategy makes perfect sense. However, Williams College is not in the business of making food; it is in the business of education, and I for one don’t believe that dining halls should be striving for profit.

So what is a money-savvy, fiscally responsible thing for students to do? One solution that Kieran Brennan ’10 and I came up with is Purple Cow Pastures. Purple Cow Pastures is an off-campus student dining meal program which can help supplement regular dining hall fare. We calculated that students on the 21 meal plan, eating 16 to 17 meals a week, can drop down to the 10 meal plan, and with the money saved, can still eat 16 meals a week without spending any extra money. But Purple Cow Pastures is hardly the only solution. The College is very generous in its accommodations in the dorms around campus. Nearly every dorm has its own working kitchen where students can prepare their own meals. It’s true that home-cooked meals take a little preparation, but in terms of price, flexibility and healthy dining, a meal made at home is an unparalleled option.

Whether students decide to continue eating on the meal plan, take up the culinary arts for themselves or sign-up for a program like Purple Cow Pastures, they should at the very least be aware of this strange phenomenon in the dining halls. The most important thing is to help students save money. After all, who could use that $1700 more: Williams, with its $1.4 billion endowment, or you?

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