Hungry for Change: Meal Plan Offerings Are in Need of Improvement 

Almost every Swarthmore student knows the dreaded feeling of reaching the point in the semester when they are low on Dining Dollars and Swat Points. Many students find it far more convenient to grab a quick bite in the middle of the day — especially between classes and labs — at Essie Mae’s, the Science Center Cafe, or Kohlberg Coffee Bar, than dining in or getting take-out from Sharples or, now, the Dining Center, which is even farther from the academic side of campus. Running low on Swat Points and Dining Dollars is an everlasting issue for Swatties, but it is a problem now more than ever because Essie Mae’s, the Science Center Cafe, and Kohlberg Coffee Bar have raised their prices for the Fall 2022 semester. 

On Sept. 29, The Phoenix reported on the price increases at on-campus eateries due to general price increases and supply chain issues across the country. In addition, the article mentioned that while the price of boarding at Swarthmore increased by 10%, there has been no change to the number of Dining Dollars or Swat Points offered to students in meal plans. With the price increases at on-campus eateries, students have less purchasing power and will likely run through their Dining Dollars and Swat Points faster than before. 

Grievances about the meal plans at Swarthmore are not new. While the college offers four meal plans with different combinations of Dining Dollars, Swat Points, and meal swipes, many students are critical of the rigidity of the plans. For example, first-year students are required to choose from two of the college’s meal plans, the Swat plan and the Garnet plan, both of which offer the fewest Dining Dollars and Swat Points and the most meal swipes. One could argue that this requirement encourages first-years to socialize when forced to utilize meal swipes at Sharples. The ease of take-out options, however, renders this possible rationale largely insufficient. Besides providing four meal plans for second- through fourth-year students, an apartment plan for NPPR residents, and a commuter plan for off-campus students, the college does not provide much flexibility or guidance when it comes to choosing plans at the beginning of the semester. If a student runs out of meal swipes, Dining Dollars, or Swat Points, their only option is to pay up and load more money onto their OneCard. This leaves few options for students other than to pay out of pocket, introducing greater burdens on low-income students. 

The college must further develop existing measures and provide new solutions to students running low on their meal plans. The college has navigated these issues in the past by allowing students to donate meal swipes, Dining Dollars, and Swat Points to other Swatties running low. However, this solution does little to solve the problem, as it depends on other students having an excess amount of meal swipes, Dining Dollars, or Swat Points on their OneCard, and largely only goes into effect towards the end of the semester in the throes of finals season. In addition, there is little information about how this system works; it is not listed on the Dining section of the college’s website and is therefore an informal solution to the problem.

Another issue with the standardized meal plan system is that plans automatically reset at the start of each semester. While this may be a good thing for students who run through their plans quickly, it means that other students who may not use all of their meal swipes, Dining Dollars, or Swat Points are left wasting their money because they did not use up their entire meal plan from the previous semester.

There are a number of ways that the college can promote transparency and flexibility in the meal plan system. First, the college can emphasize ways that students can budget their Dining Dollars and Swat Points according to each meal plan that they choose. This may, for example, help first-year students navigate their spending better, especially given that the two meal plans open to first-year students provide the least amount of Dining Dollars and Swat Points. Other schools, such as Wesleyan University, have published recommendations for students who wish to budget their meal plans throughout the year. 

Second, the college should also be more transparent about the meal swipe donation system and publish information online for students who wish to participate in the program. 

Third, the college should offer a rollover system from the Fall to Spring semester to ensure that unused Dining Dollars, Swat Points, and meal swipes from the Fall semester do not go to waste. Students should be able to make the most of their $8,922 meal plans and spend their money throughout the entire academic year. Other schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania, have implemented plans that enable students to carry over their unused dining dollars from the Fall to the Spring semester. Not only will this ensure that students’ money does not go to waste, but it will also enable more flexibility for students who wish to donate their remaining meal swipes, Dining Dollars, and Swat Points before the end of the semester.

In the long term, if inflation of food prices continues to affect the purchasing power of student meal plans, perhaps the college should consider subsidizing an increase in Dining Dollars and Swat points (in the same vein of the greatly appreciated provision of TAP funds to address high textbook prices). Alternatively, the college could allow students to convert excess meal swipes to dining dollars or Swat points so as to provide a greater amount of flexibility that maximizes students’ meal options. Food is an essential part of the college experience, and students should be able to take full advantage of their meal plans. 

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