Meal Plan Costs Exceed Cash Cost of Meals

Going to Sharples is a routine part of most Swarthmore students’ days. While students on the meal plan have to decide which of the three meal plans — all priced at the same rate of $3,085 per semester — they want to be on, few people realize what goes into this college fee.

The three meal plans for students living on campus are a 20-meal-per-week plan; a 17-meal-per-week plan with $100 of Declining Balance Points that can be used at the Kohlberg and Science Center coffee bars, as well as at Essie Mae’s; and a 14-meal-per-week plan with $175 Declining Balance Points.  The 14-meal plan is the most common.

“We have developed a diverse range of dining plan options to meet the needs of our students,” Vice President for Services and Facilities Stu Hain said.  “The plans we offer have been informed by the historical number of meals eaten by the average student in each plan, and account for the additional purchases students tend to make within each plan.”

For off-campus students, a five-lunch-per-week plan is available for $625 per semester; they can also be on any regular meal plan.  According to Dining Services Director Linda McDougall, this year eight off-campus students are on either the 14- or 17-meal plans, and two other students are on the 5-lunch plan.

“I’m not on a meal plan because I enjoy making my own food,” off-campus student Kate Smayda ’13 said. “I also found myself eating the same thing over and over again in Sharples and way too much of it.”

A closer examination of the three regular meal plans shows that although students pay the same price for each plan, they do not get the same value for each.  For example, the 14-meal plan offers 75 more points than the 17-meal plan does, but also has three fewer meals per week — a value that far exceeds the $75 extra, considering that the three extra meals per week span over the entire semester, for a total of 42 extra meals.

“The plans have been refined over time in consultation with student input,”  Hain said in response to this concern.  “We are currently reviewing all of our pricing, along with many other aspects of our operation, with an outside consultant. We expect to receive a final report from that work in late summer.”

Perhaps more surprising than this inequality in meal plan value is the discovery that paying for every meal at Sharples with cash is cheaper than being on a meal plan. Prices at the door are $4.75 for breakfast, $6.75 for lunch, and $10.00 for dinner. This means that if a student eats all three meals a day at Sharples and paid at the door, it would only cost $2257.50 a 15-week long semester — $827.50 fewer dollars than paying for a meal plan.  For the 20-meal plan, each meal averages to around $9.80 per meal. While McDougall acknowledged that this was true, she defended this fact by explaining that students on the meal plan are not just paying for the food they eat.

“Meal pricing is determined by the historical number of meals eaten by the average student in each plan and the cost of ingredients and operating expenses,” Hain said.

McDougall explained that students on the meal plan specifically contribute to the electricity, service, and maintenance costs of Sharples.

While the need for a profit and the decision of price based on food costs may be evident, some students, including Smayda, feel that the meal equivalency prices at Essie Mae’s — $2.60 for breakfast, $3.75 for lunch, and $4.60 for dinner — do not allow them enough to spend.

“I don’t think it’s fairly priced considering if you pay for meal at sharples for dinner it costs $10,” she said.  “Also, you often have to double swipe to get a full meal at Tarble.”

McDougall explained that, once again, the price difference concerns what students are paying for.

“It costs a lot less for us to produce food at Sharples than it does at Essie Mae’s,” she said.  “[Essie Mae’s] has a lot more packaged meals and foods that have to be pre-made, whereas Sharples has the facilities to make everything here.”

This year, there are “dinner specials” at Essie Mae’s, which involve a main course, chips, and a drink.  The specials change every day.  What most students may not know is that points can be used at Sharples, in addition to Essie Mae’s and the coffee bars; people who are not on a meal plan but put enough points worth on their student I.D. to pay for Sharples meals and coffee bar prices could end up spending considerably less than those on a meal plan.

Not only do some students feel that they do not get their money’s worth for on-campus eating, but some also feel that they do not know how many meals or points remain for the year or week. To resolve this, Amy Jin ’15 aspires to create an application in her software development class that informs students how many meals they have used.

“[The idea] came to me during a Housing Committee meeting, when we were just throwing ideas out for potential apps,” she said.  “I think it’s something that a lot of students can benefit from — I know I always find myself wondering if I have enough meals to double swipe at Tarble at the end of the week.”

While she plans to talk to McDougall about this idea by the end of the semester, McDougall said she has already talked to Information Technology Services about implementing a way for students to keep track of how many meals and points remain.


  1. I love the idea of having an app to track points balance and the number of meals remaining in a week. I know I’m not the only one who has a hard time keeping track! 😛

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