Last fall, freshman Karlie Eaton was on the smallest meal plan for first-year students living on campus. When the semester ended, she had 30 meals left over, which meant 30 meals wasted.
At St. Thomas, unused meals and flex dollars do not carry over to the next semester’s plan.
“We have to pay for a lot of meals we don’t even use,” Eaton said, suggesting that leftover meals should roll over or students should be reimbursed.
Eaton and her roommate, freshman Ashley Witting, are considering living off-campus next year, partially because of the meal plans.
“We won’t use many meal plans [living off-campus],” said Witting, who had about 60 meals left over from this fall semester.
The meal plan breakdown
Todd Empanger, director of food services, said about 92 percent of 2,400 students living on campus in a residence requiring a meal plan will purchase one. About 50 percent of students who live in campus residences like Flynn and Morrison halls, which do not require meal plans, will voluntarily purchase one.
“If you look at some of the meal plans, [students] used 80 to 90 percent, and some are 70 to 80 percent,” Empanger said.
According to Empanger, the variable in these numbers is whether the students choose to spend their meals, saying they “can use meals anytime they want. They have it available to them.”
Bruce Van den Berghe, the vice president for auxiliary services, said a number of different factors play into determining the cost of meal plans and the different types students can choose from. A lot of the numbers are based on past experiences, research of colleges and universities all around the country and input from student focus groups. He describes the whole procedure as “complicated.”
He went on to say “colleges and universities set that pricing knowing that students are going to miss 10 to 15 percent of their meals. So, they’re not paying for 100 percent of their meals.” If students were expected to use all their meal plan, Van den Berghe said prices “would go up by another 15-20 percent.”
Leftover money goes back into school
The money students pay for unused meals or flex dollars covers food services’ labor, supplies and other costs, according to Van den Berghe.
“[It’s] a really hard thing for us to wrap our heads around because any dollars that are left over stay with the university and are used for financial aid for students, used for jobs for students,” Van den Berghe said.
He also said food services brings in over $1 million in revenue from catering and other services aside from what the students pay for meal plans.
“Most students are only here for about eight months of the year,” Van den Berghe said. “That’s one-third of the year that students aren’t here, and we still have to provide services to the rest of the community … It’s a great community builder.”
And what about those extra meals?
Empanger said food services has let students donate some meals to charitable organizations around the community for a number of years. Any student who is interested in setting up a meal plan donation program for a service has to set up a meeting with Empanger. If the student provides a charity, contact information and tax ID number, Empanger will work to make the drive happen.
In past years, St. Thomas students have donated meals to Catholic Charities, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Up ‘til Dawn, Children’s Miracle Workshop and a number of other groups.
Students who donate meals simply fill out a slip of paper with their names, student number and signature. One meal will be deducted from the meal plan, and $2.50 then goes to meal costs for the organization.
Theresa Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.