As a part of the everyday life of a student, the meal plan and overall dining hall experience often come up in conversation. Usually, the conversation is about the quality of the food, the price per swipe or the lack of chocolate milk that day. University Student Government (USG) tabled in Tinkham Veale University Center last week in efforts to poll students’ attitude toward the meal plan options. Specifically, they asked students how many meals they used a week, whether they would opt-out of the meal plan if possible and whether dietary restrictions ever caused them to miss meals.
An overwhelming, 70.9 percent of the 489 students who voluntarily submitted answers to the survey, responded that they would opt-out of the meal plan. Over 43 percent of students reported missing meals because Bon Appetit did not satisfy necessary dietary restrictions. The comment sections were filled with critiques mostly concerning these polls, as well as the quality of the food, the price per meal swipe and an overall lack of dining options.
USG conducted the survey with the intention of sitting down with the university administration and Bon Appetit to discuss students’ concerns with the meal plan and dining experience. An attempt to bring the student voice into conversations about the dining experience is admirable.
Undoubtedly, preparing food for masses of university students is no easy feat. As such, there are far too many elements to the Case Western Reserve University dining experience; dining with dietary restrictions and the organization of the meal plan will be primarily addressed.
A few weeks ago, an opinion piece examined Leutner Commons’s failure to consider religious dietary restrictions. Many comments from the USG survey as well as students across campus have reiterated this remark as it applies to mild to severe food allergies, veganism/vegetarianism and medical conditions which dictate dietary limitations. This issue should be among the first to be brought up by USG on behalf of the students. Anxiety about mealtimes and possible behind-the-scenes contamination should not be among the stresses of a student on the mandatory $3,000 a semester meal plan.
Often, there are relatively simple fixes to comfort those with dietary restrictions, such as separating peanut butter and jelly containers so as to not contaminate one with the other, or separating gluten salad toppings from those which are gluten-free. Additional fixes include using different utensils for each serving and having certain sections of the grill washed between uses for students apprehensive about contamination. Students with such restrictions often err on the side of caution further limiting their meal options each day, rather than asking questions of the server. Either the server will not know the answer, needing to leave their post to ask and frustrating other students in line, or they will be unable to guarantee there was no contamination.
Students often suggest that many dishes can easily be made vegan, but the simple use of butter prohibits them from being able to eat the meal. Clear descriptions of meal options would further be a way to ensure students with dietary restrictions understand what exactly is in each meal and address the threat of any possible contamination.
The other major objection to the dining hall experience is how CWRU has organized the meal plan system itself. That is, the available meals per week and the price. The preliminary survey found that many students do not use all of their meal swipes each week. Another USG program is hoping to address food insecurity by allowing students to donate unused swipes to other students each week. Such a program would limit wasted swipes and could help ensure students eat adequately through the week.
Depending on the meal plan, the cost per swipe ranges from $12-17. However, what students often overlook in that price tag is that we are paying for not only food, but service. As we advocate for a modified meal plan to better our experience, we should be advocating for fair wages and benefits for all of the dining hall workers. A transparent price breakdown for each meal plan should be among the requests. As simple calculations will show, opting for a meal plan with fewer meals per week is not proportionally cheaper.
The USG student initiative is a step in the right direction, toward a better, safer and more transparent dining hall experience. While there will never be a flawless system, students should not be concerned about eating at the dining halls with dietary restrictions, nor should we be paying what we do without a clear understanding of the prices.