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Andrea Matthews '11: Eating a hole in our wallets

I love hosting prospective freshmen. Last semester, I showed a delightful young woman from New York City around campus. I took her through the Main Green, to Jo's for a late night snack and, the next morning, to the Ratty for breakfast.  (I figured it would be honest to expose her to our most lovable eatery early on in her visit.)

Given my penchant for swiping meal plan-less friends into the dining halls, I anticipated that I would be out of guest credits.  But I was not concerned —  given the whopping 50-something meal credits I had at the end of last year, I knew I would have more than enough to spare on my guest.  

I was correct on two out of three counts: my guest credits were toast. My regular meal credits, however, were in abundant supply. "Excellent," I said. "May I just swipe my guest in with one of those?"

Apparently, I could not. My poor prospective student stood there, mortified, as I exhausted my powers of persuasion:

     "Wait… really?

     "But… they're my meal credits.

     "Please, just this once?

     "I don't understand! They're MY meal credits!"

It only got worse from there. "You could pay with dollars," the harangued card-swiper suggested. But I couldn't pay the six dollars that supposedly equal a meal credit at venues like Jo's and the Gate. No, breakfast at the Ratty would cost me $9.30. With my poor prospective freshman's resolve to attend Brown disintegrating by the moment, I slapped the money down and shuffled away. 

The prohibition on using my meal credits, which I paid for, to feed someone else strikes me as fundamentally unfair. The only logical explanation for Brown Dining Services' policy is to save money at the expense of student choice.  

Whether one is on a weekly plan, in which the credits expire at the end of the week, or a Flex plan, in which they carry over through the end of the year, unused credits allow Dining Services to keep your payment without delivering a product. This may seem like a negligible amount — what's a few credits here and there? But say person A is on the 20-meal-per-week standard plan, and misses three meals per week for all 28 weeks in the school year. Valued at $6 per meal (which is actually a low amount, given that the Ratty charges $9.30 for breakfast, $12.15 for lunch, and $14.25 for dinner), this person loses the equivalent of $504 "food dollars" per academic year. In other words, BDS saves the rough equivalent of $504 by charging you for what you don't eat.

There seems to be a quick fix to this scenario: Just purchase a smaller meal plan. But this is a disingenuous option that in the end still cheats students out of their money. Let us look at the difference in costs and benefits between the largest meal plan and the next one down:

Weekly Plan A costs $3,920 for 20 meals per week and 200 points per year.

Weekly Plan B costs $3,690 for 14 meals per week and 150 points per year.

Valuing each meal credit at $6, and assuming 28 weeks in the academic year, the "dining dollars" value for plan A is $3,560 while Plan B is worth $2,502. That's a loss of $1,058 in "dining dollar" benefits for a savings of only $230 in real dollars. Given the sharp decline in benefits for these relatively modest savings, who would switch? Only those who are absolutely sure of their consumption habits, or are less risk-averse than they are eager to save the $230.  

Another interesting figure to look at is how much real money every "dining dollar" costs. With every meal plan, each meal credit or Flex point "dollar" costs more than an actual dollar. What is interesting is that each plan gets "cheaper" as one moves up the scale.  

The smallest weekly meal plan gives you $1,246 in benefits for $3,058 in real cash. That means you're paying $2.45 in real money for every $1 of "dining dollars."

The next plan up costs you $1.88 per "dining dollar," followed by $1.47 and finally $1.10 for the 20 meal per week plan.

Given the relatively high value per dollar of the largest meal plans, it would not be surprising to find that many Brown students are on meal plans larger than they need. The people who benefit from this fee structure are not the students, but Dining Services, which formulates a coercive meal system to encourage over-subscription, and then creates huge savings when students fail to utilize all the meals they paid for.

It is plausible that Dining Services could benefit from economies of scale, in which the more food they produce, the cheaper each unit of food becomes. Respecting both this and the need for Dining Services to have some rough estimate of the amount of food it will have to produce over the year, what solutions can we find? Perhaps Brown could offer meal plans with both smaller tiers and more reasonable changes in price for changes in the value of plans. Alternately, Brown could let its students do what they want with their own money, and relax its rule on the free use of meal credits. Either way, Dining Services has an opportunity to sweeten the deal for students, who deserve a fairer meal plan structure than what's currently on the table.

Andrea Matthews '11 does, however, congratulate the Ratty on implementing an additional omelet station.


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