Should you be on the meal plan?

Students on the 8 meals per week plan at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) pay over $24 per meal, regardless of the meal. Comparing this cost against the door cost that a non- student, staff, faculty member, or student using Claremont Cash would pay to eat at Collins (see spreadsheet), students pay nearly $8 more for dinner, nearly $11 more for lunch or brunch, and nearly $14 for breakfast. CMC students on the 12 and most likely the 14 meal plans are also paying more per meal than they would pay for the same amount of meals with Claremont Cash.

Considering the mix of meals a student eats at the dining halls during the week, these additional costs can add up quickly. By trying to maximize the return on investment from the 8 meal plan (eating seven dinners and one lunch), the student would be spending an additional $57 per week (see spreadsheet) compared to paying the door cost (see spreadsheet). At the other end (the student eating five breakfasts and three lunches/brunches), the student would be spending an additional $98 per week compared to paying the door cost (see spreadsheet). Summing the additional costs per week for both meal plan mixes over the entire semester, a student on the 8 meal plan pays an additional $916 for the dinner-heavy mix and $1,492 for the breakfast-heavy mix (see spreadsheet).

The other meal plan options follow very similar trends across all of the colleges, varying only in the price per meals and the meal plans offered at each school. At CMC, The 16 meal plan has the lowest cost per meal at just over $14 per meal. As long as the student is eating 16 meals per week, this plan is actually beneficial when eating at the dining halls for both the high- and low- cost meal mixes compared to paying the door costs (mixes with breakfast should still be minimized on the 16 meal plan because the student is still paying well over $3 more per meal).

With this in mind, is the rational decision to move from the 8 meal plan to the 16 meal plan? Although the 16 meal plan is “only” $625 more a semester than the 8 meal plan, that extra cost has great significance when a student is already paying a steep amount in other expenses (tuition, travel costs, textbooks, etc.). Therefore, if a student cannot financially move up to the 16 meal plan and can eat for a lot less by shopping for themselves, why are they on the meal plan in the first place?

The answer is simple: students cannot get off the meal plan unless they are no longer living in campus dorms. Across the five colleges, if a student lives in a dorm they are required to be on the meal plan. Being on the meal plan is beneficial for the students that can financially afford the 16 meal plan as they save between $440 and $150 dollars a year by doing so compared to paying the door cost. Being on the 14 meal plan can even be beneficial for the students at CMC if they eat mostly dinners and lunches throughout the year. But for the students on the 8 and 12 meal plans, no combination of meals on these plans makes financial sense when compared to the alternative of paying the door cost.

What if students were not required to be on the meal plan?  To answer this question, let’s look at the price per plate instead of the price per meal. Once a student enters the dining halls, they are surrounded by a cornucopia of food that they can pick from as they like. There is a station for everyone, from the carnivorous athlete who “needs” three pieces of chicken with every meal—even if they are having another meat-based dish—to the student with dietary preferences who has far fewer options. If a student is having a hard time choosing between this or that, no problem. They can come and go from each station as much as they like. If they do not like the steak from the grill, they can dump it on the conveyor belt (that takes it…away) and opt for two, three, or even four pieces of chicken instead.

The myriad amount of dishes one could create in a dining hall is of concern to not only the environment, but also to the cost-conscious student, presumably the student on the 8 meal plan. The disparity between the amount and content of each student’s plate can be massive, which makes the price of each plate also considerably different. From a financial standpoint, the contents of a meat-heavy plate are considerably more expensive than the contents of a veggie-heavy dish. Thus, the students that benefit the most from being on the meal plans are those who do not have any medical, physical, or philosophical dietary restrictions to consuming every sort of meat and meat-based product.

The students who get the best bang for their buck are students who devour copious amounts of food, especially animal products like meat and dairy, on the 16 meal plan. But what if the student is a vegetarian or vegan on the 16 meal plan? Then certainly the economic cost of being on the meal plan (real + opportunity cost) is a lot higher than the next best alternative (i.e. not being on the meal plan and not eating at the dining halls). By being forced to be on the meal plan, vegetarians and vegans are paying more for the true economic price of their meal than other students who eat calorically similar meals that contain animal products. As a result, those who eat a plant-based diet are subsidizing the cost of the meal plan for those who eat animal products, even though those who eat a plant-based diet generally object to the consumption of animals due to ethical and environmental concerns.

Despite the ability for the students to price discriminate between the number of meals they would like, they do not have the opportunity to choose a plan that demonstrates their dietary preferences or restrictions. All students are charged one price: a price that benefits those who consume large amounts of food laden with animal products.

At first glance, the colleges would seem to be losing money on these types of eaters. In some sense, that is true. If everybody ate this diet, the amount of money would be too heavy a loss to the schools and they would have to raise the price of the meal plan, as initiating any sort of food quota would be met with serious backlash. But not everyone eats this diet. Enough dietary or financially “sensitive” eaters exist to bear the burden of the cost that the “non-sensitive” eaters consume. In other words, the students on the 8 meal plan are subsidizing the students on the 16 meal plan and the vegetarians and vegans are subsidizing the animal product-eaters.

This is the same way a Golden Corral or a Country Buffet is able to have $12 door costs into their dining halls. They primarily rely on those who do not end up eating the full cost of the door cost (e.g. kids, vegetarians, vegan, elderly people) to help subsidize the New York  tenderloins and lobsters for the others. In both cases, one group of people is regressively subsidizing the activity of another group of people. As with any market correcting mechanism, this non-vegan and non-financially conscious subsidy is distorting the real price of meat and food consumption in general and only exacerbating environmental and financial woes.

Solutions exist. To make the meal plan equitable, CMC and the other colleges could renegotiate their contracts with their respective dining services to transition to a system that discriminates by the amount and type of food on a student’s plate. This system differs in a few slight ways: 1) students would swipe into a dining hall as they normally do, but the swipe would simply serve as a means to verify students are on the meal plan; 2) after filling up their plate at the buffet, students would “check out” at a kiosk using points they have previously purchased (e.g. holding weight of food equal, 40 points would be equivalent 5 meals with animal products and 8 meals without animal products), which would correspond to the true economic price of their meal (i.e. discriminate by the amount and type of food on a student’s plate). Points could be rolled over each week, which would create an equitable system that no longer requires dietary or financially “sensitive” eaters to bear the burden of the cost that the “non-sensitive” eaters consume. Furthermore, such a points system would incentivize students to reduce the amount of food they waste-- an incentive that does not currently exist-- because students would be paying for every ounce of food on their plate.

CMC could also install more communal kitchen space throughout its 14 dorms. Right now, the school has one kitchen for the approximately 1200 students living in dorms. Providing these resources would benefit all students, especially those on the 8, 12, and 14 meal plans who must cook meals to get through the week, by fostering dorm community and responsibility while creating a relaxing outlet from the stresses of school.

If you are on the 8, 12, or 14 meal plan as a CMC student living at the Student Apartments, you should end your subscription to the meal plan and purchase your meals in Claremont Cash. Unfortunately, if you are a student living in dorms at CMC and you are on the 8 or 12, you are spending more money at the dining halls than a community member who pays the door cost for the same number and mix of meals per week. Furthermore, if you are on the meal plan and have dietary or financial sensitivities, you are subsidizing the meal plan cost for non-sensitive students on the meal plan. Also, the meal replacing at the Hub is an epic rip off, especially for students on the 8 meal plan, who would paying over $24 for a sandwich. If you find these conclusions frustrating, please share your thoughts with CMC Dean of Students or the equivalent institution at the college you attend.  

The price per meal was calculated by subtracting the flex from the cost of the meal plan and then dividing that value first by the number of academic weeks in a semester and then by the number of meals in the given meal plan. It was assumed that all meals were consumed on each individual’s meal plan each week, which is of course not true for everyone. As all students living in dorms are required to be on the meal plan, the price per meal of each meal plan was compared to the door price at each dining hall for breakfast, lunch/brunch and dinner as these would be the prices students would be paying if they were not on the meal plan and still wanted to eat at the dining halls (see spreadsheet). Negative values show the amount of extra money each student is paying every time they go to the dining hall compared to paying the door price. Therefore, positive values show the amount of money the students are saving by being on the meal plan and eating at the dining hall, which is mandatory. For breakfast, lunch/brunch and dinner at CMC the prices are $10.75, $13.75 and $16.75, respectively (see spreadsheet). If a student was to pay the door price to eat all three meals, they would be spending over $41 a day, an amount that could easily be undercut by buying food at a grocery store and even by dining out for every meal in the Claremont Village.

Although students could purchase entrance into a dining hall using Claremont Cash or regular cash, it can be assumed that a student would not do that until they were out of meals for that week and out of flex or board plus for the year, or the week if the student goes to Harvey Mudd. At CMC, the the door prices using flex are $4, $5 and $6.25 for breakfast, lunch/brunch and dinner, respectively, which are much less than the non-flex prices (see spreadsheet).

The over/under values are then converted into weekly savings/losses and semester savings/losses. As the value of these savings/losses depends on the mix of what meals the student eats at the dining hall, an upper and lower sum is given for each meal plan. These number can be found on the spreadsheet.

1. Both spring and fall semesters have 16 academic weeks. Although there are 17 weeks in the spring semester, it was assumed that no meals were consumed during the week of spring break as all dining halls are closed during that week. Therefore, the number of eligible of weeks during the spring semester is also 16.

2. The difference between the price per meal and the door price varies because the dining halls charge different rates depending on what meal is being served (see spreadsheet).

3. The lower and upper sums are in reference to the amount of money the student is paying compared to buying every meal at the door price. Lower means the mix of meals that would lead to the lowest difference between the meal plan price per meal and the door price. Higher means the mix that would lead to the largest difference between the meal plan price per meal and the door price.

Figures by Bhavika Anandpura '19