There are few things in this world tougher to stomach than Yale dining’s take on “seafood stuffed sole.” The meal plan might be one of them.
At the tune of more than $30 a day, every on-campus undergraduate is mandated to pay too much for a product that is worth too little. For reference, that price tag gets you breakfast at Atticus ($5.50 breakfast sandwich), lunch at Little Salad Shop ($9.00 Cobb salad) and dinner at Tomatillo ($8.95 enchiladas) with room to spare. Skip breakfast and that’s enough for two meals at Caseus. Replace lunch with a Luna Bar and it’s dinner at Union League. I know your next question: But do they have “tofu scramble” or “providence style mussels”? Fair point.
When it comes to the price of the meal plan, you don’t need to look far for some red flags. Consider the fact that the difference between unlimited meals and 14 meals is $72 (from $3,108 per semester to $3,035). Assuming unlimited practically means 3 meals a day, that’s a 33 percent drop in services for a 2 percent drop in price. Outside of mob-fronts, you’re unlikely to find anything marginally comparable in the private sector.
But the way the dining hall system is structured, it doesn’t really matter how many meals a student actually consumes. That is, unless he actually uses every swipe he paid for (“Dining halls would not have enough food if each student came to every meal they were allotted,” Howard Bobb, Yale Dining’s finance director, told the News). Because a high operational cost comes with keeping all residential college dining halls open, the price for a student to go from zero meals to one is about $3,000, and the margins afterwards are pretty small.
The main cost drivers here are not crates of food or keeping on the lights. “Labor is the number one cost [because of] the number of dining halls and number of facilities,” Bobb said. This fact shouldn’t be surprising. Local 35, the union that represents about 1,200 Yale employees including dining hall workers, was able to extract quite a contract from the University. The floor for any dining staff hourly wage is over 240 percent higher than the Connecticut minimum wage; there are additional guaranteed raises of 14 percent over four years (having started last year); and it is virtually impossible to fire any employee with a plain-print “no-layoff clause” in the contract.
However, costs are not usually a primary concern when your customer base is forced to pay for whatever you need. And there are other downsides to any such mandate: Dining halls are slow to respond to student preferences since consumers lack choice in suppliers; many students lose any room in their budget to eat outside dining halls, unfairly hurting local food-providers not protected by Yale; and other students find the dining plan as a major incentive to move off campus, dwindling residential college communities.
Students should be able to opt-out of the dining plan. Should the convenience and accessibility of the dining halls merit these costs for some undergraduates, fantastic — let them freely choose to gorge themselves on “chicken slouvlaki” at their heart’s content. But other students should not be forced to pay for this inflated cost on top of already proliferating tuitions.
Currently, the requirement to purchase a meal plan exists so that all residential dining halls can remain open. Perhaps this is not worth the trade-off. And we should be open to test different structures that can end the fiscal necessity of the mandate. For example, residential colleges can operate on different schedules, like they already do on weekends, or we can limit the ability of students to purchase meals a la carte, in order to better estimate costs after the mandate.
There may be no single magic bullet to improving Yale dining. But it is very unlikely we will even consider significant changes to the meal plan or curbing costs as long as students are conscripted to being captive consumers.
Sometimes we can’t have our cake (or “magic bar”) and eat it too.
Harry Graver is a senior in Davenport College. His columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .