Student cost of top quality college dining

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

By Jason Roche

Everyone is well aware that the cost of college is high, but some may overlook how the price of food is contributing to their debts. When it comes to gaining the “freshman 15,” the University of Massachusetts provides a wide range of palatable options to fill your appetite, but it may empty your wallet. The top-quality food and sustainable practices of the university do not come cheap, and all on-campus students are required to purchase a meal plan.

“We just want to make the world a better place for everyone,” said Ken Toong, Executive Director of Auxiliary Services at UMass.

According to Toong, the University purchases 30 percent of its food from local producers and has switched to serving only sustainable seafood. In addition, dining areas prepare food no more than 50 minutes before students consume it to preserve freshness and cut down on waste. While these practices have greatly benefitted students, the environment and local farmers, they come with a price.

UMass Dining Services brings in more than $60 million annually, according to its website. As a nonprofit organization that receives no support from the state, all of its finances are generated from revenue and nothing is kept for profit. It is not a cheap enterprise, which is likely why on-campus students are required to purchase a meal plan. Students’ payments allow Dining Services to maintain its operations and continue its devotion to sustainability, healthy eating and local produce.

More than 17,000 UMass students have a campus meal plan, Toong said. The University offers two meal plans to freshmen and sophomores: the Value Meal Plan ($2,296.50) and the Unlimited Meal Plan ($2,660). Once students reach their junior year, they can also choose from the YCMP Platinum ($2,240) and YCMP Gold ($1,145) plans, which allow them to use their swipes at the 18 retail food outlets across campus. With bundled financial plans, it is typically assumed that the purchaser is receiving a discount in comparison to someone purchasing the product without a plan. However, this is not necessarily the case with UMass meal plans.

Without a meal plan, food at the dining commons costs $8 for breakfast, $10.25 for lunch and $13 for dinner. With a meal plan, students receive a given number of swipes that can each be exchanged for one meal. There are no value differences between breakfast, lunch and dinner with swipes as each meal costs one swipe. With 224 meal swipes, the Value Meal Plan provides students with two meals a day, which breaks down to just over $10.25 a swipe. This gives students a discount if they get dinner, but gives them no deal on lunch and overcharges them at breakfast. The price per swipe is even higher for the YCMP plans.

With 200 swipes, the YCMP Platinum plan is priced at $11.20 per swipe, while the YCMP Gold plan with 100 swipes is priced at $11.45 a swipe. Most students with the YCMP plans like to use their swipes at the retail outlets on campus, with each swipe providing up to $9.50. This means that students are losing almost $2 for every swipe they use at these outlets.

“Our retail locations cost a lot more money, the compostable containers are not two or three cents, but 20 or 30 cents,” Toong points out.

However, those without a meal plan do not pay any extra for the containers; they pay $9.50 for $9.50 worth of food, while students with a meal plan pay $11.20 or more for $9.50 worth of food.

Students do save about $2 when they use their swipes during dinner, which costs $13. However, dinner is the only time that a meal plan is saving you any money. If students buy dinner at retail outlets or opt for a late lunch at the dinning commons, it would be cheaper for them to pay with cash than to use the swipes on their meal plan. Of course, on-campus students do not have the option to pay solely with cash, as they are required to purchase a meal plan at the beginning of each semester.

It is also worth considering what food off-campus costs. The United States Department of Agriculture calculates that it costs $146 to $289 a week to healthily feed a family of four. Students with the Value Meal Plan pay over $153 a week for food. In other words, each student is paying enough to feed a family of four every week. Students living off-campus without a meal plan have found ways to eat a healthy diet on a low budget.

Justin Petraitis, a senior and Resident Assistant at UMass, is one of the few on-campus students who can opt out of the mandatory campus meal plans.

“RAs don’t need to have a meal plan, which is kind of unfair,” he said.

Petraitis splits a $350 farm share with two other people. The farm share is actually carried out through the Stockbridge department here at UMass.

“I would say that I spend no more than $50 a week on food, and that includes a few meals at places like Blue Wall,” added Petraitis, who cooks his own food in the kitchen available in his residence hall.

Britainy Young, a junior who lives off campus, spends $30-$50 every two weeks for food.

“I’m a vegetarian so that cuts down on the cost,” she said.

She usually shops at Atkins Farm or Trader Joes and buys rice, greens, vegetables and sometimes specialty items for particular dishes.

“My budget for food is $170 a month, but I usually don’t even get close to spending that much.”

These budgets are much cheaper than the $153 a week students living on campus pay for their food. At $10.25 a meal for the cheapest option, UMass meal plans pack a hefty price. There are much cheaper ways to maintain a healthy and nutritious diet. When the cost of higher education is already placing students in difficult financial situations, the price of food should not be something that is mandatorily expanded. While the University has done a fantastic job increasing sustainability and supporting local produce, it should provide more affordable meal options for students.

Jason Roche is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].