Operating costs drive meal prices

Only students living off-campus or in co-op housing can opt out of purchasing one of the meal plans offered at the College. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.
Only students living off-campus or in co-op housing can opt out of purchasing one of the meal plans offered at the College. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.

All resident students, expect for those in co-ops, must participate in a meal plan, making it easy for students to accept the cost without really looking into the value. Behind the simple flat costs that most students pay at the beginning of each year is a complicated operation with discrepancies in the actual value of each meal.

More than half of the student body, including all first-years, is on the 21-meal plan, which amounts to an average price of $9.75 per meal over the 33-week school year. For a student who eats an average of 19 out of their allotted 21 meals per week and goes off-campus over Thanksgiving break, the average price increases to over $11 per meal. This is comparable to stand-alone meal prices. The dining halls charge $8 for breakfast, $11.50 for lunch and $14.75 for dinner, making the average cost of a stand-alone meal for someone who eats all three meals a day only $11.41.

Dining Services argues that viewing meal plans as a sum of individual meals prices does not adequately encompass the complexity of the dining program and the range of options available to students.

“The economics of our dining plans are every bit as complex as our program and they can’t really be compared to the ways in which we think about the operations and costs of stand-alone restaurants,” Gayle Donohue, assistant director of student dining, said.

According to Donohue, simply dividing the number of meals students eat by the price of their meal plans doesn’t account for the broader costs associated with regularly presenting a variety of food at multiple venues for relatively long hours.

“Our student dining program offers one of the broadest ranges of choices of venues, food offerings and hours of service of our peers,” Donohue said. “Keeping all of our dining units open for the hours that we do generates significant fixed costs that don’t normally exist for stand-alone restaurants.”

According to Steve Klass, vice president for campus life, labor costs work differently at the College than at a restaurant. At the College, workers cannot be sent home and dining halls cannot close when meal traffic is light.

Another important aspect of the economics of Dining Services is that it must break even — it cannot make a profit or a loss. At the current prices, Dining Services does break even. If they adjusted the prices of meal plans, students could change their meal plan selections and Dining Services’ revenue could change.

Though the large fixed costs associated with Dining Services may explain the apparent discrepancy, the difference in the price of stand-alone meals and the price of each meal on a meal plan is significantly larger on lower meal plans.

For a student on the 14-meal plan, the average cost of a meal is $13.67. On the 10-meal plan, the average cost is $15.65. As a result, students who have meal plans appear to offset the high operating costs for those who buy some of their meals individually. For example, a student on the 10-meal plan who uses it to buy three lunches and seven dinners pays $616.25 more than it would cost to buy each of these meals at its stand-alone price. Students who buy some or all of their meals in cash or points, however, don’t have to pay anything towards these relatively high operating costs, according to Dinning Services.

Students could potentially save large amounts of money by purchasing each

of their meals up front but the fact that meal plans are required for all students makes this really only an option for seniors living off-campus or in co-ops. Dining services stated that the meal plan system is not structured to accommodate large amounts of students purchasing stand-alone meals.

“If we broke the plans apart and replaced them with individual cash and credit card-based purchases, the per-meal cost would be significantly higher because we’d have to incorporate the fixed costs at an increased level through each meal purchased to replace the way it’s currently covered across the broad baseline of structured dining plans,” Donohue said. “The per-meal cash prices are there as a convenience for students who want to fill in on occasion; they’re not priced as an ongoing replacement program.”

According to Klass, if students began to purchase more stand-alone meals, their prices would be re-evaluated and most likely rise.

At least part of the fixed costs associated with each meal go towards dining services’ environmental sustainability efforts, which have been a primary focus over the past several years.

“We’ve embedded sustainability in every aspect of our work, as a guiding principle for all that we do,” Donohue said. “By naming it one of our departmental strategic imperatives several years ago, we’ve made it a first principle that guides much of our decision-making.”

Mike Evans, assistant director of the Zilhka Center for Environmental Initiatives, has worked closely with dining services in their sustainability efforts, citing a summer committee on food composting as an example of dining services’ projects.

“All the unit managers met regularly with students and the Zilkha Center over the summer to think about improving post-consumer composting,” Evans said.

According to Evans, dining services still has areas where they can improve.

“From the Zilkha Center’s perspective we should always work to incorporate more real food into our campus’s food purchases,” Evans said.

Though there appears to be a discrepancy in meal plan pricing, and it’s somewhat unclear why those who purchase stand-alone meals don’t have to pay for the operating costs that those with meal plans do, dining services is continually looking to use the money it receives each year to improve.

  • Hungry

    Excellent reporting. Perhaps the lesson is that socialized meals cost more than the free market? Or is it that the subsidized meals disproportionally affect those who were trying to save money?

  • Daniel Lancaster

    Nice work, William.

  • Judy Lee

    So, are they encouraging students to live off campus?

  • Ravi Pillalamarri

    Maybe consider interviewing some of the labor costs, in future reporting on this topic.

  • Commonius

    I agree re the labor costs—isnt the college committed to equity as well as sustainability? Fifteen dollars an hour should be the new minimum wage.