Students criticize pricing, quality of mandatory meal plans

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Last year, when Alexis Kleefisch was a freshman still figuring out the ins-and-outs of college life, there was one thing she learned quickly. School dining, specifically at the Student Center, was costing her more than she thought it would.

“I have pretty strong opinions about it,” Kleefisch said. “The food is very overpriced. I get enough food, but I always feel like I spend more than I should. Last year, I spent around $18 a weekend for food at the Student Center.”

Kleefisch, now a sophomore, had run out of money on her meal plan and was forced to find other means of getting food.

She was on the mandatory DePaul plan, which costs around $1,249 a quarter or $3,747 an academic year.

When freshmen who decide to live on campus roll up to their dorm rooms on move-in day, much of the big decisions for the year have already been decided. Roommate(s): chosen. Classes: scheduled.

Meal plans are yet another decision that is usually made before students set foot on campus, and the required rates set by the school are supposed to ensure that students get enough to eat without dipping into their own accounts every time they’re hungry.

According to Joe Mroczkowski, director of student centers, the mandatory plan is to support students who may be away from home for the first time and give them nutritional meals.

“Entering college, students are typically away from home for the first time,” Mroczkowski said in an emailed statement. “DePaul University provides dining services to support students dining and nutritional needs and allow students to eat a well-balanced meal.  Dining facilities also support a sense of community and provide students a common area to meet.  In addition, commons kitchens in residence halls are not meant to be used for the daily cooking needs of the students that live there.”

The amount of meals students are projected to get depends on the meal plan. The DePaul plan, which is the mandatory meal plan for incoming freshmen who will live on campus, offers one and a half to two meals per day.

meal-plan-infographic-01-1

(Graphic by Lauren Johnson)

That breaks down to around “an average of $16.22 per day during the quarter,” according to Mroczkowski, but many students don’t spend this much for food — unless going to ETC, the “grocery store” in the Student Center, which many students feel is overpriced.

Kleefisch, who currently has the red plan, which costs $1,425 per quarter, had run out of money on her meal plan last school year and was forced to find other means of getting food.

Required meal plans are a facet of college dining at universities around the country, and the rates, as well as the plans and choices for students, depend on the university. At DePaul, the university’s deal with Chartwells, a dining company that provides many of the food options, can explain prices and also food options.

Around the country, universities require meal plans and have deals with dining companies, like Chartwells or Sodexho, to provide students meals. These deals can dictate the prices of food, as well as the meal plan rates students have to pay. The details of DePaul’s deal with the company aren’t public, but at other universities that partner with Chartwells, such as Texas A&M, a 10-year deal in 2012 included a $22.7 million signing bonus and $25 million in capital investments.

The costs that come with these deals get passed to students and can account for the rising prices of colleges, some critics say. One way for universities to get money back is to build upfront payments into the meal plan.

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(Prices courtesy of ETC)

At DePaul, the prices of meal plans are based on a combination of “the real costs of food and labor, the costs of related commodities, such as utilities, fuel, and packaging and economic data such as the Consumer Price Index is also reviewed,” Mroczkowski said. Students using their meal plans fully, he said, supports the costs of maintaining dining choices and locations.

Freshman Michael Cipriano, who says he eats at the Student Center around three times a day, said that last quarter he had a surplus of money and he worries about what will happen if, at the end of Spring Quarter, he still has a surplus.

“I had (a surplus) and I didn’t eat the two and a half meals a day,” Cipriano said. “I don’t think it equates to whole meals. It’s upsetting as a spender because I thought I would have more independence and options. It would be nice to have (some of the money) as pocket change.”

Though money from last year rolled over to this year for students, that will no longer continue to happen.

“There are real costs for running the dining service, and like any other business aspect of the University, the financial model built to support those services must stand within each academic or fiscal year,” Mroczkowski  said. “Asking students to use their meal plan fully within the academic year supports the costs of maintaining the variety of dining choices, locations and hours.”

Franziska Miles appreciates the fact that if she can’t afford a meal out she can rely on the Student Center, but does question the quality of the food for the price she’s paying.

“Things are always expensive (at the Student Center), but it’s nice to know if my bank account is low, I can go to the Stu,” Miles, who lives in McCabe and eats on campus regularly, said. “I don’t think the money I’m spending is comparable to the quality of the food. They would have better choices or healthier choices. It would be nice if they asked the student body what they want so we can have better options since we’re paying so much.”

In regards to healthy or higher quality options, Kleefisch said that she reached out to the university and was told that she could “ask the chefs about it.” None of the  healthy options she asked for were added.

“We’re a captive audience,” Kleefisch said. “Our only options are Whole Foods, Chartwells or ETC. I don’t know why this is the way it is — I just want answers.”

Editors note: A previous version of this article stated the daily amount spent on food as $41.62, but it is actually $16.22.