The Dining Dollar Cash Cow
UCSD’s policy on meal plans is becoming an area of contention with many students that are living on campus. Students that live in UCSD’s on-campus housing are required to buy into one of the school’s several Dining Dollar plans for the entire time they live on campus. These plans charge students for “dining dollars” that must be used at approved on campus locations. The practice of schools offering dining plans is nothing new, and most schools offer similar services that offer students and their parents a way to budget for food expenses. The problem UCSD students have with their meal plans is the fact that they are compulsory.
I am going to compare students’ opinions on what kind of services the dining facilities should have with the type of services HDH actually provides. I will also provide an analysis of student meal plan rates, why they do not represent fair prices for students to pay for food, and what that means about Housing Dining and Hospitality at UCSD.
Student opinions on food can be quantified by a 2009 study sponsored by The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), which is part of University of California Santa Cruz. The CASFS sponsored a survey of over 1,000 UCSD students titled, “Understanding the UCSD Market for Sustainable Foods.” The students were asked to rate the aspects of their dining experience that were most important to them on a scale of 1 to 5 (with one being the least important and five being the most important); they were asked to rate their willingness to pay more for higher quality foods, and how important environmental considerations were to them. The survey then averaged student’s answers to provide an aggregate of student opinion on each of the areas. The students overwhelming responded that the attributes they found to be the most important in dining commons food are flavor, safety and nutrition. Students rated flavor a 4.62 out 5 on importance, safety a 4.47 out of 5, and nutrition a 4.44 out of 5. Other important areas were the price and variety of the food, each of which students rated higher than 4 points out of 5 on importance. The two least important areas to students were whether or not food was locally grown and whether or not the school provided vegan-friendly food. Students only gave locally grown food a 2.69 out of 5 for importance, and they only gave vegan-friendly food a 2.64 out of 5. Only 30% of students surveyed felt that the UCSD dining experience reflected their food values.
The students’ message is clear; they are significantly more concerned about the quality of service and price of food that Housing Dining and Hospitality (HDH) provides than they are about the size of the farm their food comes from or whether or not they can look forward to vegan food days. That is not to say that the school should not provide meals for those with special diets or work to reduce its environmental impact. However, when the school took it upon itself to provide for the dining of these students it also took on a responsibility to provide them something close to the type of service they want to receive. HDH, however, has completely ignored student opinion in favor of chasing its own political and social agendas with the money the school is forcing those students to pay.
Prominent on the HDH website and in dining and market areas across campus are advertisements for HDH’s “Major Planet” sustainability programs. These programs include buying food from local farmers with its Farm to U program, buying eggs only from farms that use cage-free chickens, and a general focus on offering primarily sustainable farming products. While all of these are notable goals, products produced within these specifications are significantly more expensive than conventional alternatives. This puts one of the issues that students see as the least important -localized farming- in direct competition with one of the most important issues to them -the price of their food.
Similarly, vegan food is not only widely available; there are certain dining areas that have days that are exclusively vegan. While accommodation for the school’s vegan population is an obvious necessity, how can HDH justify sacrificing variety in favor of providing a strictly vegan diet when the majority of students care more about variety? One of the benefits of catering to a captive clientele is that if you offend them or provide them service they don’t like, what recourse do they have? They already paid for the service, and they are going to continue paying for it even if they don’t want to. What reason could HDH have for complying with what students want?
There is no arguing that food is expensive. No matter how any student manages their spending, food is going to take up a large portion of their budget. It would be nice to think that HDH’s plans provide an appropriate budget for food for students. Unfortunately, the meal plans available at UCSD are significantly more expensive than what men and women the age of most UCSD students (19-25) should be spending on food.
Every year, the USDA’s Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotion releases a report on the national average of what it costs to feed up to four people in the US. The report contains estimates for spending plans that range from “thrifty” to “liberal.” According to the 2010 report, “liberal” spending on food for a 19-25 year old male is $76.70 per week. A “thrifty” male should be able to feed themselves for $38.80 per week. For women of the same age, “liberal” weekly food expenditure was $68.60, and “thrifty” was $34.10. UCSD Dining Dollar plans, on the other hand, force students to pay either $85 or $100 per week for food. Cheaper meal plans are only available to students who have apartment-style housing.
While some portion of the over-selling of dining dollars can be attributed to the expense of services like Farm to U, the extent to which students are overcharged for food is a natural product of the compulsory meal plan system that HDH uses. By using housing to force students to buy dining dollars, HDH monopolizes the primary food service on campus. When a monopoly is propped up on the authority of an authoritative body it has a natural tendency to engage in rent-seeking behavior. Normally the natural functioning of supply and demand will determine an equilibrium price that consumers are willing to pay and suppliers are willing to accept. When a monopoly is put in place consumers no longer have a choice on what they are willing to pay; whatever price the monopoly sets on necessary goods is the price people will have to pay. This leads to artificial price inflation as the monopoly seeks to maximize its profits. Simply put, HDH forces students to buy such a large amount of dining dollars because doing so forces students to spend more money on services that HDH provides.
It is impossible for students to have their opinions heard and noted, or for them to insist on fair prices as long as participation in meal plans is compulsory. As long as HDH can force you to buy what they are selling they can sell whatever they want. While students are asking for better flavor and variety and lower costs, they are getting more expensive food and inclusion in HDH’s often misplaced environmental advocacy. I’m not saying that helping the environment is wrong; I’m saying that students should be allowed to do as they please in a manner that they have reasoned through and decided on. And while the likelihood of HDH willingly giving up the extra revenue provided by the required meal plansis slim, it is up to students to insist that if the school is going to force its dining services on them, that it provide the type of service that students want.
Dustin is a junior in Sixth College majoring in Political Science.
HDH: Scamming Students 1¢ at a Time
UCSD’s location in the affluent La Jolla suburb of San Diego presents both advantages and drawbacks to the UCSD experience. The rather obnoxiously inflated real estate surrounding campus causes many first, second, and even third year students to seek housing on campus. This affords conveniences such as not having to purchase and maintain a car, and maintaining close proximity to daily classes. As one would expect, it also necessitates the student desiring to live in either the residence halls or on campus furnished apartments to sign a housing contract stipulating the conditions upon which they may rent housing from UCSD. The organization that provides this is known as UCSD’s Housing, Dining, and Hospitality department of Residential Life.
Wait, hold up! Housing, dining, and hospitality?
Housing, I can see how that’s relevant.
Hospitality? Exactly what does that even mean?
As any student who has lived on campus at UCSD knows well, this housing contract includes the mandatory purchase of a preset plan of dining “dollars”. For those students looking to live in residence halls, this figure is 2893 dinning dollars, for apartments 2220 dining dollars. Keep in mind these numbers are the minimum number of dining dollars which students must purchase. But why is this problematic? You’re inevitably going to spend money on food at the campus dining halls and markets if you live on campus anyway, what’s the harm in having that money allocated to a UCSD account with convenient debit-swiping ability for purchases?
Convenience is certainly one of the ideas that UCSD plays upon in order to market this notion of a required dining plan. “In a hurry or don’t like to cook? Use your dining dollars in any of our restaurants for a quick latte or made-to-order meal. Hosting a study group? Shop at your local retail store to pick up snacks and drinks for a get-together at your apartment,” the Housing Dining Hospitality website offers. Seems like their only interest by creating this artificial “Dining Dollar” system and connected micro-economy is to make your omnivorous college life as convenient as possible, right?
Environmental friendliness is another idea the dining service emphasizes. The use of non-disposable utensils, sustainable water filling stations, and recycling/compost services help to “sell” this required program. Advertisement of fair trade options make the consumer feel as though their dollars are going to a good cause.
The more crucial cornerstone of the program, however, is ignorance. Straight from the same page of the Housing Dining Hospitality website, “One Dining Dollar yields one dollar of purchasing power.” Without a trip to the Applied Physics and Mathematics building, most could deduce that at face value, this seems like a fair proposal. But the question begs, why would UCSD create this program if they were to gain nothing from it over a simple pay-with-real-dollars system? The answer of course, is that they do still benefit. At the dining halls and markets which accept Dining Dollars as payment, the option is available to pay by traditional means as well. Thus, it appears that dining dollars in and of themselves are not where the black magic (read: UCSD profit) is made.
Then where does the profit come from? The system of mandatory purchase for dining plans allows UCSD to assume that purchasers will in turn use a no more than a certain amount of goods from the system, and often less due to the fact that dining dollars unused at term end are worth precisely, absolutely, nothing. The guarantee of business of those who live on campus essentially enables the ability for them to predict the budgeting of the entire system and set high prices which they know, even assuming the unrealistic condition that every single purchaser claims all goods already paid for, their bottom line will remain black. Thus the fact that a Dining Dollar yields the purchasing power, while technically true in the situation, is irrelevant as the actual purchasing power of the dollar is so significantly decreased on campus. Instead of an exhaustive and repetitive list of goods bought on and off campus evidencing the decreased purchasing power of Dining Dollars, I took the liberty of creating a graph illustrating this discrepancy.
Of course, the inevitable argument exists that I’m being unfair to UCSD. They provide a lot for the students, and they need to make theirs too right? In the face of massive budget cuts by the UC system, how are they going to be able to maintain economic stability without this income? The reality is that the money that they need to subside as an institution indeed has to come from somewhere, but extortion of this money through mandated dining plans is not an ethical practice. Tuition and housing costs need cover tuition and housing, whatever that may take, and leave the purchase of food to be decided by the students.
Nick is a freshman in Warren College majoring in Electrical Engineering.