Meal plans may not offer value

Students may review their remaining balance after making a purchase. (credit: Nicole Hamilton) Students may review their remaining balance after making a purchase. (credit: Nicole Hamilton)

It’s a new week, and for many students this means a new quota of blocks to use up before Oct. 16. For many students, the two-week period of the meal block system, as well as financial concerns regarding the value of the blocks, can complicate mealtimes. Blocks are cherished by some, disliked by others — but regardless of individual opinions they are a requirement for the incoming class and are preferred by upperclassmen who favor on-campus dining options.

Student reactions to the meal plan system have always been mixed. This year, Housing and Dining Services has added a greater variety of meal plan options, targeting students who may want fewer meal blocks than the former plans. This move, while increasing flexibility, heightens concerns regarding the value of a smaller meal plan system versus paying for meals outside of a plan. However, in addition to answering the desires of the students, meal plans must also meet the needs of the vendors — this requiring a balance between value and flexibility for students and utility for vendors.

Some students voice concerns about having to use a block — even when using DineXtra might be cheaper — just because their chosen plan allots them so many meal blocks. “I have found that when I go to places like the Maggie Murph Café in the morning for breakfast that it is cheaper to buy a small tea, muffin, and apple with DineXtra than it is to use a block, but that I will use the block because I do not want to waste them,” said Sarah Horner, a first-year in the Mellon College of Science. “Next year, I will
go for a plan with fewer blocks and more DineXtra.”

The lack of flexibility becomes most obvious in the Green meal plans, which provides the most blocks and the least flexible dollars. “I have the Green 3 meal plan with 34 meals per two weeks and $275 DineX per semester. I actually regret getting such a high meal plan considering I eat one to two meals per day,” said Giri Mehta, a first-year in the Mellon College of Science. “In hindsight, I would have gotten a much lower meal plan with more DineX.” Such a high number of blocks almost necessitates frequent on-campus eating habits in order to yield any significant value. Like Horner, Mehta also intends to enroll in a meal with fewer blocks and more flexible dollars in the future.

And, as with any pre-paid meal plan, there is always the fear that blocks are actually not saving you money at all.

“I actually did the math out one day and realized that if I paid for the same amount of food, in cash, it would be cheaper than using a meal plan,” said Brian Duff, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major. “That was the day I canceled my meal plan.”

Under the Red 9 plan, Duff had paid $2,225 for 11 meal blocks per week and $675 in flexible dollars. Subtracting the flexible dollars from the price, Duff reasoned that he was paying $1,550 for his blocks. Assuming 16 weeks in a semester, Duff calculated he pays $8.71 for a single block.

“I believe that most dinner blocks cost $8.50 and most lunch blocks cost $7.50 if you pay in cash, so you are losing money by signing up for a meal plan, rather than getting a good deal,” he said.

Of course, $8.50 and $7.50 are just estimates of averages, and whether a student is saving or losing money on the meal plan is very dependent on what type of food he or she orders.

Housing and Dining Services is aware of student concerns regarding the meal plan system, but staff members explain that the value of the meal plan varies depending on the way it is used. “If the student is somebody who doesn’t want to take advantage of what the block has or hasn’t found the right place to eat yet … then they may not be getting the most out of their plan, and we can work with them on that,” said Kim Abel, director of Housing and Dining Services. “The block system is designed to provide value…. We ask our vendors to provide value from blocks.”

However, despite concerns of value, the block model has evolved into a system that Housing and Dining hopes is both useful to students and flexible to their eating habits. “It’s a hybrid model,” Abel said. “We have meal blocks, flexible dollars, and a little bit of Carnegie Mellon thrown in as well.”

Many of the guidelines and fundamental components of the meal plan system have resulted from previous challenges faced by both Housing and Dining and on-campus dining vendors. One commonly cited issue is that pre-paid meal plans run the risk that students will use several meals at once, so vendors are never sure what to expect. “Suppose you are a vendor, and you know that there are 3,000 students on the meal plan who you may have to serve. You don’t know when they’ll show up and how much of their meal plans they will use, so you don’t know what to keep in your inventory,” Abel said. Being understocked will lose potential customers, while excess inventory is a waste of money.
“The way other institutions control this is by serving everyone through the same cafeteria-style dining location…. The flexible dollars can be used at other locations, but the actual meal pass has to be used at a specific location,” Abel elaborated. Central Michigan University, for example offers students unlimited meal plans, but only four of the 15 on-campus dining locations will accept meal passes.

However, Carnegie Mellon wanted to give students more choice with their meals, and that required more vendors to participate in the dining program. To overcome these challenges, Housing and Dining broke down the meal plan into its fundamental components.

“Dining programs have to run efficiently and be financially valuable, so there has to be a balance basically between the needs of the vendors and … the needs of the students,” Abel said. In this case, students seem to want flexibility, while vendors need predictability of demand. “By creating this block system and this structure, we’ve created a dining program that’s balanced — both for the vendor and for the students.”

It’s a compromise, and in exchange for some flexibility, students receive more variety. “It’s the parameter that makes the system work,” Abel said. “It provides the structure for the meal plan to maintain itself. It lets the vendors know how many meals they will be serving in a certain time.”

As a result, Carnegie Mellon currently has almost 30 different dining locations on campus and is serviced by more than 10 vendors. More vendors are expected to come in the next few years. “We’re distinct because we allow students to use their dining blocks wherever they want to go,” Abel said.

In response to student concerns about flexibility, Abel has set up some of the community dining plans available to upper-class students that offer more flexible dollars relative to meal blocks. Abel has also helped ensure that there are still other dining plan options that offer a high ratio of flexible dollars to blocks.

As a result of these efforts, meal plan enrollment has risen. Currently, the Red plans, which provide the most flexible dollars, are the most popular meal plans among first-year students, while Scotty’s Choice, which averages five meals per week and $450 flexible dollars per semester, is the most popular plan among sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
“The upperclass plans in particular were a great success last year, so we’re constantly looking at that and trying to make improvements,” Abel said. “Last year we saw a 120 percent increase in upperclass meal plan purchases. We have exceeded that number this year and appear to be trending at an all-time high.”