Meal plans have historically been mandatory for University of Alaska Fairbanks undergraduates living on campus, but some students are campaigning for another option.
Brennan Lippert, a 19-year-old freshman student planning to go into emergency management, came to the UAF from Kentucky. The cost of attending the university from out of state is already fairly high, Lippert said, and having to buy a meal plan just adds to that.
The university requires undergraduate students living on campus to buy a meal plan, according to UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes. The exception is undergraduates living in on-campus family housing.
And freshmen, unlike other undergraduate students, don’t have the choice of living off campus as a way to avoid the mandatory meal plan. The requirement that freshmen live on campus is new this year.
“Every single freshman living option available to you from (the Moore Bartlett Skarland Complex), to lower campus, to the Cutler Apartments all require you to purchase a meal plan,” Lippert said.
University meal plans include “block” plans, which cover daily meals, as well as “Munch Money,” which acts as regular money but can only be applied to dining services.
Freshmen specifically must choose either the Weekly 7 Block or Weekly 5 Block for their meal plan.
The Weekly 7 Block costs $2,695 per semester and is the most expensive plan offered at UAF, while the Weekly 5 Block costs $2,450 per semester.
UAF has eight dining plans available for on-campus students: three block plans, two Munch Money plans and three plans specific to Cutler Apartments. The lowest-cost meal plan at $595 per semester is available for residents of Cutler Apartments, which have kitchens but since fall 2016 have required residents to purchase meal plans.
The University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Southeast also require students living in residence halls on campus to purchase a meal plan, but their plans are structured differently.
Carrying a sign reading “Mandatory Meal Plans are a Scam,” Lippert has been gathering signatures on a petition requesting other dining options. At last count he was nearing 280 signatures.
“So there are two goals, two acceptable conclusions that I would find towards what this protest aims to get,” he said.
The first goal, Lippert said, is to let students opt out of the plan. The second is to provide incoming students with a residential option that does not require a meal plan purchase and which provides more refrigerators and facilities for students to cook for themselves.
Michael Martins, a 20-year-old second-year student studying mathematics, said working part time while going to school on campus full time for a semester he was able to save $2,555.
“When you think about college students paying their way through college, if you’re working 20 hours a week, you can barely pay for food, let alone textbooks and tuition,” Martins said, “so I think it’s a very good cause.”
Martins, along with Abi Smothers, began helping Lippert when they saw him handing out flyers outside of the Wood Center on Oct. 31. Both were friends with Lippert prior to joining the protest.
The students have been coordinating to hand out flyers, spread awareness and get more petition signatures.
“The food quality that they have isn’t really worth what we’re paying here, and I would really like the financial freedom to do what I want to with the budget I have for food,” said Smothers, who is in her third semester.
The university is in a contract with Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services, food service providers owned by Compass Group. The contract is up in 2020, at which point UAF may renew or seek other options.
Lippert said he feels the protest could influence the university to consider reworking the contract.
dining services works
People spend money on dining at UAF in four ways: using cash at UAF dining locations, also known as cash retail; using block plans; using Munch Money; and using catering services.
“So those are sort of the four revenue streams, so when it comes to the retail and the catering, UAF gets a 10% commission, Chartwells gets 90,” Grimes said, “and that’s what they use then, of course, to buy the food and pay the employees to cook the food and all of those things that go into running a dining program on campus.”
The block plans have different rates, depending on which block is being used, so Grimes said the percentage split is different.
Meal plan fees have increased and options have changed in the last few years, Grimes said.
The university’s share of the meal plan fees totaled $565,000 last fiscal year, all of which goes back into the dining services program, Grimes said. Dining services, she said, is intended to be a “self-supporting enterprise.”
“So the money that the university receives as part of having dining on campus, that’s going to go to help keep the facilities up to date,” she said.
Whether or not Chartwells makes a profit is up to enrollment numbers, what the retail sales are, costs of shipping, cost of labor and similar costs that go into running a business, Grimes said.
This semester, 860 required meal plans were sold, according to Grimes.
“Some of the reasons (for requiring the plans) are if they are living in a residence hall, there’s not a feasible way for them to cook all of their meals,” Grimes said.
Residence halls prohibit students from having cooking appliances in their rooms, and the shared kitchens in residence halls are not large enough for multiple students to cook, Grimes said.
Furthermore, Grimes said the meal plans allow students to focus on their studies and not have to worry about shopping, cooking and cleaning throughout the semester.
For the first-year students, Grimes said, going to college is a time of transition from living and home to becoming more independent, and the block plans ensure they have meals throughout the semester.
A sour taste
The protesting students don’t agree with the university’s reasoning.
“Well, we’re all adults going to school here and I feel like adults should be able to take care of themselves pretty well and that we should be trusted to be able to take care of ourselves,” Smothers said, adding that if someone wanted the meal plan option, it should be available, but she thinks she would be able to get more-nutritious food and save money without one.
Martins said the plan that provides seven blocks means that if a student does not eat dinner at the dining hall every single day of the week, he or she loses the money applied to the meal plan.
“Every week I’m expected to use seven blocks. If I don’t use the seven blocks, they just disappear. I don’t get any compensation,” Martins said.
Meal plans roll over from fall semester to spring semester but not between academic years, and students do not get reimbursed for what they don’t spend.
Lippert said he feels it goes against the principles of economic freedom to force students to buy into something private and done for profit.
Grimes said university data indicates most students don’t end up having excess money at the end of semesters and that, instead, 57% of students on meal plans receive notifications that they may overspend their Munch Money in a semester. She also said students who have the choice between lower level or higher level plans mostly choose the higher level plan.
“We continuously take feedback from students on the meal plan, and if we hear something or get a lot of interest in a different type of plan, a different structure to the plans, we are certainly willing to consider those,” Grimes said.
The students plan to continue their protest by talking with the vice chancellor of student affairs, meeting with the UAF student government, continuing to pass out flyers and petitioning.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at: twitter.com/FDNMlocal.