Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: Spring break meal plans need reform

Monday, April 23, 2018

For students who elect to stay on campus, spring break should be a time of rest, not confusion about the affordability of meal plans and fears of food insecurity. Sadly, the University’s spring break meal plan — which costs $288 for three meals a day over nine days — does little to assuage these concerns and accommodate students’ nutritional needs at an affordable rate. To spare students the undue stress of cobbling together meals over spring break, we urge the University to incorporate a greater degree of transparency with respect to its spring break dining policies and consider alternative spring break dining arrangements.

The administration offered two justifications for the meal plan’s additional fee: First, the operating costs of the Sharpe Refectory, the only dining hall kept open, increase during spring break; and second, including the cost of these plans in all students’ meal plans might actually raise aggregate costs for the student body. Neither of these assertions, however, addresses the core issues at hand: Not only does the additional spring break meal plan fee go completely unmentioned on the University’s cost of attendance webpage, but it also grossly exceeds the typical cost of food for the average individual. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans aged 19 to 50 living on “moderate” budgets could expect to spend as little as $68.80 on food per week in March 2018 — which works out to $88.46 for nine days. ($288 could almost feed a family of four, with school-aged children, for the duration of Brown’s spring break, as evidenced by the USDA data.) In effect, the University charges more than triple the amount that the government expects average people to spend on food, not including the cost associated with food preparation.

The University, obviously, understands the importance of unimpeded access to food for the well-being and performance of students: Athletes engaged in strenuous practice and trainings over spring break are given meals at no additional cost. And, to its credit, the University operates a Meal Gap program, which provides meals to students with the highest demonstrated financial need at no additional cost. Roughly 300 students of the 1,000 eligible — who were informed about the program through individual emails — exercised this option.

Still, the absence of University support for the thousands of other students who receive financial aid, and may also work on-campus jobs to supplement that aid, leaves a substantial proportion of the student body without clear, accessible food options during spring break. Why low-income students and students on financial aid — not just those who, in the eyes of administrators, meet an unspecified threshold of demonstrated need — are not also protected by the University’s generosity is utterly baffling. Instead, to secure nutritional support over spring break, these students must reach out to the Dean of the College on their own and navigate a process about which there is virtually no publicly available guidance or information.

Students, of course, could choose to decline the University’s meal plan and fend for themselves by purchasing groceries or meals independently. But for students without easy access to clean, well-stocked kitchens — kitchens in Brown residence halls are often unusable, either because they are missing key infrastructure, as some students have attested, or because they have been converted into rooms — grocery shopping is not a pragmatic option. And buying meals at eateries on College Hill is still a hugely expensive proposition — especially when students have already paid for a pricey meal plan from Brown University Dining Services — potentially forcing students to dip into their savings or scrounge the funds needed to pay for restaurant meals.

For more productive models of spring break dining plans, Brown might consider looking to other postsecondary institutions, many of which have have experimented quite successfully with alternative meal plans that better help students avoid episodic hunger. Connecticut College, for example, no longer charges students for on-campus meal plans during school-year breaks, while Columbia, George Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University have opened food banks stocked with healthy options for students. Harvard even grants students with high demonstrated need a $225 stipend, which students can use at any restaurant in the vicinity of campus.

Of course, emulating another university’s dining policies or enacting any single policy reform will not immediately make the experience of food insecurity — from which approximately half of American college students suffer — magically disappear from students’ lives. But the University cannot pretend like the problem is marginal enough that sustained, long-term change is somehow unnecessary or burdensome to the student body. Of all the obstacles to learning and personal development, hunger ranks among the highest, and the University should do whatever it takes to reform gaps in current dining policy and ensure that students have access to regular, affordable nutrition on campus.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Mili Mitra ’18, Rhaime Kim ’20 and Grace Layer ’20. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.