As any student who has stayed at the dorms on campus, you have more than likely experienced having a meal plan offered by the University of Utah. Most of the housing options on campus require a meal plan and there’s also a plan that those who are not residents have the ability to purchase. The meal plans vary and they occasionally receive a revamping.
The Housing & Residential Education’s dining page states that “most of our spaces come with a meal plan requirement, however, any student is eligible to have one! A variety of meal plans allow you to select one based on your needs. As you plan out your campus experience, we know that a variety of nutritious and delicious foods are very important and Dining Services strives to support the local community and you by providing locally sourced ingredients.”
Meal plans come with different types of spending money that can be used for purchasing food. One, called “flex dollars,” can be spent on any dining outlet on campus that will take it. Leftover flex dollars can roll over from semester to semester but not from year to year.
Another kind of spending plan is called “dining dollars.” The Dining Services website defines these as “funds that can be purchased and used just like a debit card at any Dining Services location. Dining Dollars are available to anyone … Dining dollars never expire unless left unused for six months.” The Dining Services website also defines dining dollars as “a debit card at any Dining Services location.”
Because so many of the housing students use the meal plans, students also have their own thought and opinions on their experiences with meal plans. Three students, Jamie Matthews, Kathryn Williams and Misha Bekeris talked to The Daily Utah Chronicle and shared their personal experiences with their own plans on campus.
Mediocre and Rigid
Matthews, a senior in international studies, had some criticism for the meal plans offered in specific housing. “I live in Officer’s Circle and we have full kitchens as a part of our accommodations — oven, fridge, freezer, the works. However, we are required to have meal plans which doesn’t make much sense. I’ve been told the reason is for community building purposes, in case the 12 of us ever wanted to eat together, but that’s never happened.”
Matthews also told The Chronicle about the details of the meal plans. “The cheapest meal plan you can get here is $900 for 40 meals, which, minus the $400 flex dollars, means you spend about $12.50 a meal for, quite frankly, mediocre food.”
She also said that “if I were a freshman, that would be fine! At 18, I didn’t know anything about cooking and the convenience would have been very helpful. But I’m 23 and I’ve worked in food service now. I can go to the store and spend half the money to make myself food I know I like.”
Matthews’ last point was that “I have dietary restrictions and a medical condition that restricts what I can safely eat. It took me seven weeks to get a meal plan exemption because housing sent me through about 1000 hoops and some of the staff was pretty rude.”
Besides Matthews’ own personal experience, she does not think that meal plans are all negative. “Ultimately, I understand why meal plans exist for underclassmen, and while the PHC doesn’t have great food, it is good enough and it’s filling. Five years ago that’s all I would have cared about. But after getting sick and learning to cook for myself, they became just a giant waste of money.”
Williams, an international relations major with an emphasis in international relations and security, also shared her experience. “To be honest, ” she said, “my meal plan is too expensive. This is my first year here at the U and I live on campus. Fall semester, I had the most expensive meal plan. I didn’t use up the meals and I burnt through flex very quickly. The meals were per week, so by the end, I had wasted over $1000. I switched over to the cheapest one I could do. I feel like it is better, yet I wish it wasn’t mandatory.”
Williams also lives in Officers Circle, and shares a similar view to Matthews. “I am equipped with a kitchen,” said Williams. “Yes, there are 12 people here, but I have never not been able to cook. I wish I could just focus on grocery shopping and meal planning for myself instead of worrying about using up my meals and flex dollars on campus. It’s a bit ridiculous actually. I understand that other housing options don’t have the same situation as Officers Circle, but it would help to have a simpler and cheaper option.”
A More Convenient Location
Misha Bekeris, a junior in chemical engineering, had some additional comments about the meal plans. “I just think it is very inconsistent with the split between using meals and flex, especially when trying to find somewhere to eat in lower campus. For busier upperclassmen and those who are taking classes, it doesn’t make much sense to visit the PHC unless you lived on upper campus. And even if you lived up campus, I’ve found I spend the majority of my day going to classes or studying on lower campus, making visiting the PHC to use meals more of a hassle than it’s worth, especially when the people I know and study with don’t have meal plans.”
Bekeris also added that “overall, I wish there was a more central dining hall option like the PHC where students could use their meals — not just flex — more conveniently on lower campus. I know the Crimson View partially satisfies this, but I was never a huge fan of its limited options and timeframe.” Bekeris believes that the U should add more dining halls around campus in order to allow for busier students to have more access to meals without having to go back to the PHC by the dorms.
According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the average student spends about $4,500 per year for a meal plan with many institutions costing more or less. Most schools in the U.S. offer multiple meal plans, and the U is one of them.
Many universities require their students who live on campus to have some type of meal plan. The purpose of requiring one is to make sure that students on campus are eating meals and to provide those who may not have the ability to cook in their dorms somewhere to get meals to eat.
Not all resident halls have a kitchen in their dorm or the ability to accommodate all of the residents in that hall. Because of the varying needs of students on campus, there are different levels of meal plans offered to choose between. Some students may need more meals than others — this is why there is a variety in cost as well.
Not every meal plan will work for every student, which is what Williams, Matthews and Bekeris all seem to agree upon. And because there are so many students on campus who have a meal plan, it makes sense that not all of the options will work for every student.
It is not unusual for students to not use all of their meals from their meal plans. As Williams, Mathews and Bekeris pointed out, it is hard to use up the dining hall meals but they went through flex cash pretty quickly. Their suggestions included having a more even split between the flex and meal plan money.
Unused meals do not recycle themselves. If you have a meal plan that resets itself every week and you didn’t use all of the meals before the new week starts, you don’t get to use the leftover meals during the new week. This same thing goes for semester meal plans. If you do not use up all the meals for the semester it does not carry over to the next semester. Instead, they simply are gone and unusable.
There are changes coming to meal plans in the next fall semester. The dining website says “Heritage Dining Plans (Fall 2019-Spring 2020) coming soon!” However, other than this announcement, no other information is provided. This implies that the U may be expanding their meal plan options, but without any description following the heading and no confirmation from housing as to what the expansion will entail, it is hard to say what is on their way or not on their way.
The Chronicle reached out to housing, but they were unable to provide comments before this article was published.