Grumbles, Bruised Apples & Limited Hours: Are Meal Plans All That Bad?

At first glance, it all seems so simple. Pick a number and buy food for a year. No more grocery shopping; no more Ramen. When you’re finished eating, just put your dishes on the big conveyer belt in the corner of the cafeteria and go do your homework.

The mission of the meal plan served up at the U’s Heritage Center is simple: “To provide good nutritional meals to students,” according to Curtis Grow, the associate director of the Office of Residential Living.

But then you read more closely and things get complicated. The 15-meal plan costs more than the 19-meal plan, but only because you get flex dollars, instead of transferability. You are only allowed to use a certain amount of meals a day, but be sure to use them all, because they don’t carry over from week to week. And make sure you know the hours of the cafeteria, or else none of this will matter.

Ah, the joys of a meal plan.

The Heritage Center, where dorm residents eat the majority of their meals, is run by Chartwells Dining Services, the same company that feeds all of campus.

One of the greatest features of the meal plan is its flexibility, Grow said. Students get to choose not only what, but where and how they eat.

I have had the 12-meal plan since I moved into the dorms at the beginning of my freshman year. After two years of eating in the Heritage Center, sometimes flexibility is not enough. Since my inaugural meal, my friends and I have been cracking jokes at the cafeteria’s expense. From comments on the food’s preparation (tofu soaked in barbecue sauce, suspiciously pink chicken, cookies like hockey pucks) to bitter complaints about the number of meals left unused each week because there is nothing we like. As my time in the dorms draws to a close, I begin to wonder, was I really that cheated? Did the nasty Chartwells’ corporation steal all my hard-earned money to line their already well-lined pockets? Or am I just looking for something to complain about?

The flexibility which Grow touts comes in the way the plans are designed. They break down into divisions of 19, 15, 12 and 10 meals per week. The 19- and 12-meal plans come equipped with transferability, which allows students to spice up meal options by taking them in the Union cafeteria.

The 10- and 15-meal plans add variety by allotting flex dollars, so students can shop at the Union’s C-store.

David Jones is a freshman living in Austin Hall, the old dorms. Making it from his job downtown to the Heritage Center by the time it closes can be downright impossible. Many nights he ends up eating at a fast food restaurant downtown instead.

“I’m left with like four meals a week I’m not using. That’s $20 I’ve spent that just disappears into oblivion,” he said.

Anmy Tran, another freshman in the dorms, is faced with the same problem. By the time her evening classes get out, the cafeteria hours are over. “I have to buy food from the Union and heat it up at home,” she said.

“Hours are always a problem,” Grow said. He recommends students with incompatible schedules either use flex dollars or utilize the take-out meals the cafeteria offers.

“[The hours] work out fine for me,” said John Reiss, a junior in the dorms. “But the food is a different question.”

Reiss called the food too bland; other complaints I’ve heard run the gamut from bruised apples to uncooked meat and lack of decent vegetarian options.

Chartwells’ Regional Director Mike Paulus admitted the cuisine sometimes needs improvement. “Monotony is the biggest challenge,” he said. The cafeteria needs to constantly change and add food options to keep students interested.

Overall, however, Paulus stands by his meal plans.

“That’s all you can eat, no cleaning, no shopping, in a community environment. It’s a good value.

“Students who complain usually haven’t shopped around.”

But for Jones, the meal plans are not enough. “The Heritage has a lot of selection, but it’s not very good quality,” he said. Jones will not be returning to the dorms next year, partially because of the meal plan. Reiss, meanwhile, said he probably would buy a plan if he returns to the dorms next year.

Students in the dorms must purchase meal plans for a reason. “In order for there to be a successful meal plan, there must be some?element of requirement,” Grow said. Every student must purchase a plan in order for the cafeteria to afford to remain open. The cafeteria has to stay open and has to prepare the same amount of food whether or not students decide to come to dinner, Paulus said. This is where the lost-meals factor in.

When students do not use all of their meals each week, the money paid goes to fund the additional cost of food not covered in the base price.

The cost of each meal averages out to about $3.58.

Chartwells sets the prices for the food, then the U adds in the principle and interest of the price tag of the building in which the food is served, all in order to determine the final cost of the meal. Paulus maintained most students can eat as cheaply on campus as they do off.

U senior Mark Rondina lives off campus and spends about $30 on groceries per week, and another $30 on eating out. “That’s about $240 a month,” he said. “It’s not too cheap.”

In comparison, the U’s 19 meal plan comes out to about $68 per week, or $272 a month. Other plans cost less, but many students still purchase outside groceries in addition to their plans.

Unfortunately, the cost is the same for all students, whether they are a “female coed who eats lightly or?a football player who takes a wheel barrow through the lines,” Paulus said. “You can’t charge per person.”

The U’s meal plan options are comparable to other schools its size, he said. However, it is also unique in the amount of options (like flex dollars and transferability) it offers students. The cafeteria’s hours are also better than most, Grow said. At many universities, the dining halls close between meals, whereas the Heritage Commons remains open most of the day, closing only for an hour before dinner.

Utah State University’s The Junction, their version of the Heritage Center, does in fact close for about an hour in between each meal. Their meal times are also shorter?dinner there starts at 5 p.m. and gets over at 7:30 p.m.

Paulus said he would like to see a difference in the perceived value of the four alternatives. There is not enough difference in the prices of the plans offered, and so students cannot differentiate between them.

Chartwells is also working to garner student input to improve the cafeteria in other ways, he continued.

But most students, like me, are happier just complaining about the situation. It makes for good dinner conversation, good pick up lines. I must admit, however grudgingly, though, that while the nasty corporation did take my money, perhaps it just used it to give me a fairly decent meal plan. But tonight, after I dine on my forty-billionth grilled cheese sandwich with its side of over- cooked carrots, you can be sure I’ll be looking for an apartment off campus.

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