Freshman and sophomore years, whenever I skipped a meal in the dining hall to eat out, I felt like I was wasting my swipe — and therefore money. Missing breakfast, which I did often, or going out to dinner with friends, made me feel even guiltier about wasting a portion of the meal plan’s hefty $6,650 price tag. Beginning my junior year, I switched to the “Any-14” meal plan but realized that I was literally paying the same amount of money to eat … less?
There are several inadequacies with Yale’s meal plan options, but I think they could be fixed with reasonable adjustments. At lunch and dinner, Yale’s dining hall hours don’t provide students with a broad enough window to eat. With the exception of Commons, students only have a two-hour window for lunch and just a slightly longer window for dinner. Since 11:35 a.m. and 1 p.m. are both popular class slots, many students have just minutes to grab lunch, if that. The early dinner hours mean that students with afternoon practices have to eat dinner close to 7 p.m., when food is lukewarm, while others eat so early that mid-evening hunger is inevitable. Popular dining halls are also more likely to be crowded when all students must eat in the same two-hour window, which is why Morse, Stiles and Silliman, among others, inconveniently restrict access to transfers.
Naturally, extending the hours of all 12, soon to be 14, full-service dining halls presents cost issues. Why not have a third of the colleges open “early” for lunch and dinner, another third open during a “middle” slot and a final third open “late,” so all students can eat at a time that works for their schedules? That way, students don’t have to spend extra money elsewhere to compensate for missing meals they’ve already paid for — and no, the paltry $8 given to students for Durfee’s isn’t enough.
Moreover, with the proliferation of inexpensive food trucks and carts throughout campus (which both Yale and the city of New Haven seem determined to restrict), it’s hard to justify the cost of a Yale meal plan. When meals at food trucks average about $8 a meal, it’s possible to have multiple filling, culturally-authentic meals a day for less than $30. When I estimated that students spend 26 weeks at Yale annually, a generous budget of $30 per day for food only costs $5460; a significant $1190 less than the cost of Yale’s Full or Any-14 Meal Plans. Food carts are also much more flexible than dining halls – you can eat any time you want.
Yale should work with food trucks and carts on campus to create a system where Yale students could use their meal swipes at these locations as part of their meal plan. The food trucks could keep track of their sales and then Yale would reimburse them. Or the carts could create designated “Yale meal-plan meals” at a fixed price that students wanting to use their meal swipes could select. Not only would this encourage students to support local businesses, but many of these carts are currently located in the parking lot of Ingall’s Rink. Hence, they would ease the burden on the overcrowded Silliman and Commons dining halls.
When I bluntly asked my former college Dean if I could drop the meal plan, I was told that dining halls are central to the residential college experience, which is why it’s mandatory for on-campus students to have a meal plan.
But the expensive price tag of the meal plans, compounded by their restrictive hours, simply doesn’t encourage students to purchase any of the available options. I find it difficult to reconcile Yale’s desire for “community” with the fact that I rarely see any of my off-campus friends in the dining halls.
The hard truth is that for at least some Yale students, the dining halls aren’t the social areas they once were. My parents often told me about their multi-hour meals in their respective dining halls, but most of my friends eat, talk and leave in under thirty minutes; I find I have better conversations with them when we consciously make plans to eat out. I understand why Yale wants its meal plan to be mandatory — many students would likely decline to purchase one if given the option. But for now, Yale should make a conscious effort to improve its dining hall hours and the cost of its meal plans to better serve its students.
Claire Williamson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .