Can I Customize That Order?

A case for more variety, flexibility, and affordability in campus meal plans.

By Cherie Fernandes

Let’s talk options. The University of Chicago offers a total of four meal plans: Unlimited ($2,376/quarter), Phoenix ($2,376/quarter), Apartment ($1,684/quarter), and Off-Campus ($153/10-meal pack). As the names suggest, the Apartment and Off-Campus plans are exclusive to students who live in on-campus apartments and off-campus housing, respectively. This leaves two options for students who live on campus. Between the equally-priced Unlimited and Phoenix plans, which both offer five guest swipes, 10 to-go swipes, and Saturday night meal swipes, the notable difference is a trade-off in flexibility: Unlimited offers unlimited (shocking, I know) dining hall swipes but 100 Maroon Dollars and three meal exchanges, while Phoenix caps you at 150 swipes (approximately two per day) but provides 50 extra maroon dollars and 12 additional meal exchanges. First-years are required to be enrolled in Unlimited—probably something about not being trusted to feed themselves.

Now of course there’s the obvious complaint; first-years and the majority of second-years fork over $7,000 for dining per year, while meal plans for the average college or university is around $4,500. One might say cost reflects quality, but even a seasoned lawyer couldn’t defend Baker’s decidedly unseasoned chicken. But even if there’s not much that can be done for the price of a given plan, the University ought to consider offering more variety and flexibility—which are currently quite limited—in the meal plans available to on-campus students.

First, to the first-years’ mandatory Unlimited meal plan: First-years generally burn through their 100 Maroon Dollars at coffee shops and such—reasonable given that more and more eateries around campus, like the Smart Museum Café and Harris Café, have begun accepting Maroon Dollars since 2015—but don’t have that same occasion to take advantage of unlimited meals. Between take-out when one can’t brave the winter, trusty cup ramen for the nocturnal, and food trucks for when the Bartlett taco bar just won’t cut it—not to mention all the house/RSO feeds and social dining off campus—it’s uncommon to consistently use three meal swipes a day, every day of the week, much less more. This is particularly true of students with dietary restrictions or a consistent preference for cuisine associated with a particular culture (look, I enjoy most of the dining hall fare, but its tendency to mistake salt for a spice has me pining after my mother’s cooking); while dining halls technically address the unavoidable dearth of options might make eating out or preparing one’s own meals more attractive. Then, in effect, most freshmen pay an extra $1000–$3000 for a service they won’t use.

Even beyond first year, second-years and upperclassmen who live on campus (excepting the lucky bastards who managed to snag apartments) don’t have it much better, choosing between the somehow equivalently priced Unlimited Plan and the Phoenix Plan; the 50 extra Maroon dollars aren’t much of a draw when you remember that the conversion is 1 MD = 1 USD. Non–first-years are also often more deeply entrenched in Greek Life and other social/scholastic groups, and so the dining halls won’t exactly be their usual haunts; there is less of a community-building incentive to encourage their presence. Rather, they’re at the stage where being able to prepare simple dorm-friendly meals and make decisions about which places to patronize are crucial skills, and students should be able to opt into plans that make room for them.

Columbia University, for instance, offers three meal plans for first-years to select from based on their needs, with varying numbers of meal swipes traded off for varying amounts of their Maroon Dollars equivalent; all are equally expensive at around $3,000 a year. Since UChicago’s plan costs more than double this, modulating the price to prevent a financial barrier would be of interest. Even under the new UChicago Empower initiative, families earning less than $125,000 per year (i.e. eligible for full free tuition) but more than $60,000 still do not have standard room and meals covered by financial aid. These costs put additional financial stress on students.

It might then be appropriate to follow other schools in offering limited meal plans at corresponding prices: e.g., the annual cost of two meal swipes per day is about $1000 less than three swipes per day, so a person on the former plan might simply opt to stock up on cereal and fruit to eat breakfast in their dorm. Yes, there is a concern with freshmen grappling with their newfound independence—specifically, that access to unlimited meals is a necessary safety net for when they overestimate their ability to plan ahead. But the per-quarter setup of the University’s meal plan makes this easy to adjust for: perhaps an Unlimited meal plan should be mandatory only for a student’s first quarter, after which they have a good enough sense of their habits to adjust the plan as necessary.

And for those of us that are all grown up, additional options can only be a benefit. Several schools with similar sizes and endowments to UChicago’s own can provide a template for this: Duke has dining plans A through F, with various price points tailored to different needs—somewhat uninspired naming, yes, but we’re looking for substance over frills. Similarly, Cornell offers the standard Unlimited in addition to “Bear Traditional,” “Bear Choice,” and “Bear Basic,” (what was their mascot again?) which are, respectively, the standard two swipes a day, a 10 per week variation that favors on-campus eateries, and a seven per week variation that favors cooking for oneself. Admin, changes in this direction would shape a student body that is able to avoid financial struggle, cultivate healthy eating habits, and make and plan for crucial decisions about their health—and more importantly, maybe if dining here gets more love, we’ll crack number 5 on USNews.

Cherie Fernandes is a second-year in the College.