The night of Sunday, Feb. 15 was cold. The wind was biting. It was the kind of night my Tennessee mother fears I won’t survive. In short, Feb. 15 was a terrible night for leaving a cozy quad. But my roommates and I strapped on our trapper hats and marched off campus humming a battle anthem, forging past the dead souls of Princeton Cemetery until we reached our promised land: Hunan Chinese Restaurant.
Nothing about Hunan is particularly special. Like every Chinese restaurant, its walls sport vaguely oriental decorations. Its food is Americanized, and Yelp reviewers have given it three stars out of five. If Hunan is extraordinary, it is because it manages to be the single most ordinary Chinese restaurant in New Jersey.
Fact: When you subsist on dining hall food, an ordinary restaurant meal is delicious. “I’m a changed man,” said Lawrence Cajuste ’18 upon cleaning his plate of mu shu vegetables. Full and content, he read a faintly inspirational one-liner from his fortune cookie and produced a single $10 bill to pay his share of the tab.
Ten dollars covered the cost of his food, table service, a 25 percent tip, and it still left profit for the restaurant. But imagine, for a moment, a restaurant with no profits. You serve yourself and you leave no tip. The food, by most accounts, is blander than Hunan’s, and you must buy at least 95 meals at a time. Each costs $17.53 on average. That’s the deal served at the University’s dining halls, and everyone is buying.
This deal is horrible. It is scandalous. It would bankrupt a real restaurant in a week. Yet all students, at some point or another, have queued at a card-swiper, apparently eager to pay. We have no choice. The University forces freshmen and sophomores onto meal plans, a practice that a November state legislative bill hopes to ban. Expect no change soon: the University used its political muscle to earn the bill’s only exemption. Campus Dining is set to stay a bloated, money-sapping monopoly.
The richest in our ranks may fail to notice the $6,000 dent, and recipients of financial aid may not care. But consider this: If dining halls were run efficiently, Campus Dining could write students a $2,000 rebate for every year on a meal plan. Think cash for your startup, a post-graduation nest egg, or money to buy 10,000 real eggs and cook New Jersey’s largest omelet. We could do so much!
Alas, this omelet money does not appear to be in our future. Other universities boast hulking food costs, too: Rutgers University’s block 110 plan, for example, works out to $17.13 a swipe. Some schools offer better deals — breakfast, lunch and supper from a Yale dining hall average $11.17 a meal — but I have not known a single college whose cafeterias can match the forces of capitalism. An all-you-can-eat breakfast bar in my hometown costs just $6.95, with food superior to the University’s. We too could drive our costs that low. Accommodating all diets works against us, but the sheer number of patrons here will drive down overhead. Our workers earn more than minimum wage, but there is no owner to take a profit.
I called Executive Director of Campus Dining Smitha Haneef to learn how dining halls spend the $17.53 entry fee. “Our goal is to provide flexibility,” she told me. “The block 95 plan is geared to less frequent users.” It was a non-answer to a question I didn’t ask. “Why $18?,” I repeated. “Where does that money go?”
“I cannot comment at this time,” she said. I asked why a $17.53 swipe at Late Meal buys less than $7 of food. She could not comment at that time, either.
Here is my prescription: Find the waste. Slash it. Give dining halls incentives to cut costs. Let students opt out of the meal plan after the first semester, but offer them a reasonable price so they will want to stay. Bring in restaurateurs to help.
Haneef explained, after some nudging, that fees pay for “labor, food and miscellaneous expenses” — another non-answer. Other than this, she never said what happens to our money.
Newby Parton is a freshman from McMinnville, Tenn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.