Like most freshmen, I signed up for the unlimited meal plan during my first fall semester. Princeton was an embarrassment of edible riches ranging from the sublime (late meal cookies) to the disturbing (any attempt at Asian food). As my waistline expanded, so did my love for Princeton’s dining halls.
But by that spring semester, the novelty had worn off (subsisting only on chicken tenders and burrito bowls will do that to you) and nutritional reality had sunk in. In a last-minute effort to reclaim my body and soul, I decided to switch to the Block 190 plan, the smallest meal plan allowed to underclassmen, and I have been on it since.
At the very end of last semester, I checked my meal plan balance and was surprised to find that I still had 37 meals left. After giving it some thought, however, I realized that it made sense — I had spent a few weekends in New York and often left a few days early for breaks. Unfortunately, I was leaving the next day for Intersession and could not cash in all 37 by that time. Then I began wondering to myself: Why doesn’t the University reimburse students for unused meals?
Consider how much money is at stake. With limited meal plans, the University assumes a fixed price for each meal. For Block 235, that price is $13.14 per meal. For Block 190, $15.55 per meal. Consequently, by not using up my 37 leftover meals, I had lost a whopping $575.35. To put that into perspective, that’s more than a round-trip airplane ticket to my home state of California.
The situation is even worse for sophomores who have joined eating clubs. On top of paying for our meal plan, we dish out anywhere between $500 and $1000 to dine at our eating clubs a few times a week (in addition to other social events). Each time we do so, that’s one more meal that’s not being checked off from our meal plan. That'sne more untouched, uneaten, unused meal we’ll have to pay for at the end of the semester.
Yet this financial burden on students is a subtle beast. One of the reasons this issue rarely comes to the fore is that it’s difficult for students to realize it even exists. At the beginning of each semester, we select our meal plan and pay for it in full. Then we’re good on food for the next several months. Rarely do we keep track of how many meals we’ve used or check our balance, unless we’re afraid we might be going over. The meal plan becomes yet another shrugged-off, fixed cost that is necessary to a Princeton education.
In response to this dilemma, many students have turned to a simple solution: using all of their meal swipes, regardless of whether they are actually in the mood for food. They smuggle brownies out of the dining halls and stock up on fruit cups and ice cream bars from late meal. But I’ve tried that, and I can tell you that all that happens is that a few weeks later, my fridge is filled with spoiled yogurt and my desk drawers with moldy cookies — because I’m not in the habit of forcing myself to eat when I’m not hungry. So, paradoxically, by trying not to waste our meal swipes and thus our money, we end up wasting vast reserves of food. And in many cases, we waste packaged food that might be better served by going to a nearby homeless shelter or re-shelved the next day.
Paradoxically, Princeton prides itself on being a sustainable campus. Indeed, we have an Office of Sustainability whose mission it is to “cultivate the desire in all of us to lead meaningful lives in service of global human and environmental well-being.” I assume that persuading students not to waste food would fall under such lofty rhetoric. But by refusing to reimburse students for their leftover meals, the University is unwittingly encouraging irresponsible behavior with regards to food consumption that undermines our pro-environment stance. In short, Princeton is pretending, not practicing, what it preaches.
Assistant Vice President for Communications Daniel Day defended this policy by stating in an email interview that “the University designs meal plans to be flexible to a variety of student dining preferences. To maintain this approach, we do not offer credit for unused meals, but instead encourage students to make the best choice for their specific dining needs each semester.”
Is this the best choice? More like the only choice. We are forced to be on a meal plan for our first two years, and for various dietary, circumstantial, or convenience-related reasons — “specific dining needs” — many of us have no choice but to select the smallest meal plan, which, in addition to charging us more per meal, still swindles us out of an astonishing amount of money at the end of each semester. It doesn’t sound very flexible to me; it’s just profitable for the University.
Much has been written by Opinion Editor Newby Parton about the price-gouging that takes place every time we swipe into a dining hall — for example, that it would be much cheaper, if not less convenient, to instead dine out at moderately-priced restaurants like Qdoba or Panera Bread. In addition to our ridiculously high individual meal costs, should we really be paying for more than we consume?
If the University decides to pursue a policy of reimbursement, they must eliminate all the different limited meal plans and establish only one. If not, every student would gravitate towards the Block 235 meal plan, which offers the lowest price per meal, and simply collect their unused meal-swipe money at the end of each semester.
But perhaps a simpler solution exists: to charge students a fixed amount of money every time they enter a dining hall — unless, of course, they are on the unlimited meal plan, in which case it is impossible to pinpoint an exact price per swipe. This would do two things: first, allow students to be more cognizant of their financial habits, and second, eliminate the need for reimbursement altogether. We would pay exactly as many times as we ate, no more, no less, thus ensuring fairness across the board. And of course, if it so wishes, the University could cap the number of meals that could be purchased, including those for guests.
I realize that both solutions are likely to face an uphill battle. After all, Princeton has little incentive to reform its dining services while they remain so insidiously profitable. But other universities have been taking small steps to address these criticisms; for example, in 2014 Miami University altered their dining policy so that “the money leftover in students’ meal plans at the end of each year [would] carry over to [their] meal plan for the next year for the duration of their enrollment.” In light of such progressive, pro-student reform from colleagues in higher education, Princeton has no excuse to continue its antiquated policy of non-reimbursement.
Let me ask this: Does the University care about students for whom $100, let alone $500, is a painfully large amount of money? Does the University care about minimizing food waste and ensuring sustainability? Does the University, in short, care?
If yes, it’s time we got our money back.
Lou Chen is a sophomore from San Bernardino, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.