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Students adapt to changes in meal plan

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As October comes to a close, Swarthmore students find themselves amidst mid-semester exams and increased academic pressures. Students of all class years learn a necessary balancing act of juggling schoolwork, extracurriculars, and social lives, — all while trying to find time to sleep. However, this semester added another element to this balancing act: new meal plans.

The Fall 2016 semester marked the start of the new meal plan system. The most notable of these meal plan changes was the increase in Points, used at on-campus food vendors, and the addition of Swat Points, which students may use at participating merchants in the Ville: Aria, Hobbs, Bamboo Bistro, Dunkin Donuts, Occasionally Yours, Renato’s Pizza, Vicky’s Place, and the Swarthmore Co-Op.

Anthony Condo, director of OneCard services, maintains that this aspect of the system has been fruitful based on student commentary.

Based on our initial feedback from students and members of the community, the program has been a big success, and is helping to support local businesses while providing students with a variety of dining options off campus,” Condo said.

The way in which meal swipes were distributed has also changed. Whereas before meal swipes were issued on a weekly basis, they are now issued in a semester block, including an unlimited option. First-years are limited in their first semester to either the default plan, which is the unlimited meal swipe SWAT plan with $150 Points and $150 Swat Points, or the 275 meal block GARNET plan with $300 Points and $200 Swat Points. Plans increase in respective point values as the number of block meals decrease, but the overall value of the meal plan stays constant across plans.

In addition to the new point and meal system, OneCard also created Garnet Cash, an option available to students whereby they can load money onto the card and subsequently use the card as a debit card. They would be used in lieu of Points or Swat Points should one run out of either. Unlike the point services, Garnet Cash balances carry through the entirety of the school year. Despite attempts by the OneCard Office to publicize all the features of OneCard, many students are confused about the purpose of Garnet Cash.

In regards to the actual plans themselves, Sam Wallach Hanson ’18 touches on what is new.

“To me, the main differences are that we have many more Points, and we have the option to use them off-campus, which is huge. And now, Essie’s only has swipes for this Late Night Snack period where they use to have swipes in between meal periods,” he said.

Wendy Wu ’19 expressed concerns about the differences, in particular about the new Points system, in that students are no longer able to see their Point balances upon swiping. This leads to issues with budgeting should students be unaware of their balances before or after swiping.

The Swat Points initiative was implemented in an attempt to deal with the gradual increase in student population size; with students having the option to go off campus, crowding in Sharples, in essence, should lessen.

In many aspects, this theory holds. Both Wu and Wallach Hanson make more use of their Swat Points due to having more at their disposal, as is the case with many upperclassmen. However, they also express that issues have ultimately arisen as a result of the changes regarding both Points and Swat Points.

“I love the off campus point option; I think it’s really great to be able to use meal points in off campus areas. But at the same time, with the increase of Points and the unlimited meal plan, it’s made it so that there are absurdly long lines at the Science Center Coffee Bar, at Kolhberg, and at Sharples, and at Essie’s. I feel like it hasn’t necessarily done a great job with fixing the issue,” Wallach Hanson said.

Wu describes the difficulty of increased student presence in off campus food venues, with long lines and crowds at places like Bamboo Bistro and Hobbs where there never used to be. Kennedy Kings ’20 is wary of these recent developments, stating that it seems that the college, instead of fixing the issue with overcrowding, is instead opting to move students around.

In regards to budgeting points values and meal swipes, first-years especially are facing challenges. The most pressing one is a lack of knowledge of their point balances. Many are finding themselves severely lacking in Points and Swat Points because of this, leading to poor budgeting habits.

“I switched to the GARNET plan in the beginning of the semester, so that I’d have more Points, and even then, I’m still running out. I didn’t really budget them in the beginning because I figured that $300 in Points would be enough to get me through the entire semester,” said Ariana Hoshino ’20. “I also thought I’d be going off campus to the Ville more, which I haven’t really done at all. Recently, I got an email being like, ‘Hey, by the way, you have $30 points left,’ and at that point, I was like, okay, I guess I have to start budgeting now. Now, I have about $15 left.”

Some students do not check their point balances, and swipe with no inclination of how many they started with or how many they are left with. OneCard has a system in place that sends students a warning email to inform them of their low point balances upon reaching $50. From this point, they will be sent additional emails every time they swipe that informs them of their total point balance until it is depleted. OneCard also has ways for students to check their balances for themselves, requiring students to manually go onto the GET website or the OneCard Center (links for both are available on the Dash) to get their real time point balances.

Hoshino believes that the functionality of this is questionable, matching the sentiments of many students who find this system inadequate in that the constant email reminders are unnecessary.

“I guess they’re helpful in some respects. I kind of wish that I knew how fast I was spending because, when you’re warned at $50 and you already have your set schedule, you get that warning, and you have to change everything so dramatically. That can kind of mess things up. Also, you get them at 2 a.m. Not really helpful,” Hoshino said.

Kings offers a suggestion to remedy the email situation.

“The current email warnings don’t really alleviate the stress of knowing that you’re not going to have points by the end of the semester. So, [maybe it would help] if they put a system in place where email notifications were more spread out and happened possibly sooner, maybe in increments of $50 or of $100,” said Kings.

Budgeting was not a problem for Kings, she said, because she calculated how many swipes and points she could use on a weekly basis, which is very much the same tactic that Wallach Hanson employed. He had suggestions for bettering student budgeting habits.

“Displaying point balances instantaneously [as done in previous years] was convenient, and I don’t see why they couldn’t have that.” Wallach Hanson said. “If it’s not this huge costly thing, I think it would be a good thing to bring back. Also, someone has already made it so that you can go to the OneCard website and see how much you can spend per week … if that program was more widely available for students, I think that would be beneficial for them.”

The college is working on creating a OneCard app to help alleviate this problem. The app would allow students to check their balance on their phones. They are hoping to have the app go live by the end of the academic year.

Navigating the meal plan system is a learning process for students of all class years. Adjustments to the new system may come with time as OneCard and Swarthmore receive feedback, so its functionality will likely be fixed.

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