Reforms needed for the student meal plan

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Those of us who are upperclassmen without meal plans once dreamed of the day when DineXtra could be used at Entropy. These first-years have it so good. Not only can they use their DineX at Entropy+, but they have a newer convenience store in which to do so. The meal plan system has kind of improved, but there are still things that don’t make sense about meal plans. In amount of food, cost, meal blocks, and what you can use your DineX on, there are definitely a few holes in the system.

First of all, on the absolute lowest meal plan as a freshman, for fourteen days, you get 22 meals and $78 DineX. With the average meal block costing about $7.25 or so, that equates to about $237.50. That’s a lot considering that I spent $120 at Trader Joe’s over a week ago and the food will probably last me until the end of the semester. Of course, there are those who can, and do, finish the highest meal plan on a regular basis, even finishing other people’s meals for them. But let’s be serious; those people are usually varsity athletes and they don’t account for a giant percentage of our student population. Generally speaking, even the lowest meal plan is too much food for your average student.

Okay, so the meal plan for first-years is too large. What about for upperclassmen? Carnegie Mellon’s lowest meal plan group costs about $1998.50 per semester. In the lowest bracket of this group, you can get 22 meals and $78 DineX per meal plan period; that’s the equivalent of about 165 meals and $585 DineX per semester. For upperclassmen the highest plan is 15 meals and $10 DineX for every meal plan period, or 113 meals and $75 DineX for the entire semester.

There’s kind of a disconnect there. After gaining sophomore status, you can get a plan that is 7 meals less than the lowest freshman meal plan, but an entire $68 less in DineX? Seems a little disproportionate.

In terms of pricing and functionality of meal plans, let’s compare ours to those of some of our peer institutions. Cornell University’s most expensive plan is $2675 per semester, which provides for unlimited meals, plus 8 bonus meals (designated for guests) and 300 Big Red Bucks. The cheapest plan has 14 meals every 2 weeks, four bonus meals, and 500 Big Red Bucks for the semester, all for $1840 per semester. Assuming Big Red Bucks are the same as DineX in functionality and where they can be used, the fact still remains that Cornell freshman have the option of a plan that has eight fewer meals, with four extra meals designated for guests, and about $85 less in “flexible cash” than Carnegie Mellon students. And all for about $150 less each semester.

At Case Western Reserve, anyone who is a first-year or living on campus is required to have a meal plan. (It’s a good thing Carnegie Mellon doesn’t operate on that system, because I like living on campus, but I didn’t like having a meal plan.) However, at Case, they have the option of Kosher/Halal meal plans, which, with so many international students, could be a good idea for Carnegie Mellon. They also have something called Case Cash (probably the equivalent to Plaid Ca$h), which they can use anywhere that accepts their cards. This includes vending machines, campus eateries, washers and dryers, the bookstore, copy machines, the library, and the fitness rooms.

MIT doesn’t even have a meal plan. They have what’s called TechCash, probably also equivalent to Case Cash and PlaidCa$h. MIT students, like Case students, can use TechCash on and off campus, to do laundry, at the library and for art supplies, for hardware, PC repair, for food, movies, and even haircuts. Our Plaid Ca$h doesn’t have as many uses as Case Cash and TechCash.

So what’s the best solution for Carnegie Mellon’s meal plan system? To not have a meal plan, like MIT, could work. It gives students a lot more freedom and options, which are two things that our meal plan lacks. However, I think having funds designated for just food is a good idea because then people are less tempted to starve while they buy other things. So why can’t we have a system that provides a larger variety of plans so that students can eat as little or as much as they want?

We also need to revolutionize how we deal with DineX funds. The idea of DineX going to waste at the end of every meal plan period is just foolish. Instead, the last day or so of the meal plan period could be a day where DineX can basically be used like Plaid Ca$h and for anything, and not just for stocking up on Gatorade and water. Meal plans are expensive, so we should allow students as much flexibility as possible to make their plan worth the money.