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Tobias '12: Meal plan gone moldy

Something is rotten at Brown Dining Services, and it is not just the food ("Campus eateries found selling expired food," Oct. 13). Dining Services forces its mediocre food upon us at exorbitant prices while many students have no choice in the matter — first-years are required to participate — and while others would like to cancel their plans, they can only do so in person during the first three weeks of school. It is not exactly the model of convenience.

The entire system is driven toward forcing students onto meal plan. Students are automatically enrolled and re-enrolled in meal plan every year, adding a glaring $4,158 — the cost of the Flex 460 plan or the 20 meals a week plan — on top of the $40,000 or so that we already pay to come here. Somehow, after writing a check for nearly $50,000, an extra few thousand does not seem like very much. Yet hiding the cost of meal plan should not prevent us from seeing what a rip-off meal plan really is.

First and foremost, the meal plans offer students a combination of credits and points totaling a lesser value than the cost of the plan. For Flex 460, taking the going rate of $6.40 per meal credit and adding it to the 500 points, one would find that students are getting $3,444 worth of food.

For students who find that the Ivy Room, Blue Room, Josiah's and the Gate usually have better food than the Sharpe Refectory or the Verney-Woolley Dining Hall, literally paying in cash is a much better use of one's money, and doing so avoids issues associated with meal credits. For starters, meal credits cannot always be used, and the entire meal credit is lost regardless of whether one rings up a dollar's worth of food or the whole $6.40. Paying in cash eliminates losses from unused meal credits and provides an extra level of flexibility. Cash has an added bonus — it is accepted everywhere.

For too long, the shackles of meal plan have limited Thayer Street's myriad options limited to special occasions and that rare weekend meal for those living on Pembroke trying to make do while the V-Dub closes. Finally, however, students have an opportunity to do something about the situation.

MunchCard, released this summer, offers students a way to vote against Dining Services' policies where it counts — on its balance sheet. Accepted at over 20 locations, MunchCard provides assorted cuisines at reasonable prices. Most meals cost less than $7, and many have additional discounts and packages for users. At an average of $7 a meal, students could buy a whopping 594 meals for the $4,158 they would otherwise spend on meal plan for a year. That is around 300 meals per semester, or 20 a week during the school year.

And MunchCard is an even better deal for students on smaller meal plans. For the $3,914 one might pay for Flex 330, which only entitles the purchaser to 330 meals and 350 points per year, MunchCard users will find that they can afford over 550 meals at the $7 per meal rate.

MunchCard currently has no minimum payment and students can add money at any time that never expires. Meanwhile, in the complicated world of Dining Services pricing, students will find that the best deal is always to pick the largest meal plan. As was illustrated by Flex 460 and Flex 330, spending about $200 less on a meal plan cuts out 150 points and 130 meals. Seeing as how 150 points good as $150, saving 50 bucks but losing 130 meals sounds like a pretty raw deal.

Yet the Flex 330 people have it good when you consider that the off-campus meal plan students are paying $1,352 for 500 points and 50 meals. Treating points like cash again, that comes out to a little over $17 per meal credit. I hate to break it to those poor souls who are already on the off-campus plan, but dinner at the Ratty only costs $14.25 if you wanted to just pay in cash for those occasions you decide to eat there.

It is not that the food on meal plan is all that bad. In fact, I happen to find that some of the on-campus eateries, like the Blue Room, Ivy Room and Jo's, stack up pretty well with their peers on Thayer. But when it comes down to money, paying for meal plan just does not make all that much sense.

With MunchCard taking the campus by storm — 250 students already signed up a month into the semester — students finally have another meal plan option. Dining Services take note, because, unless you get your act together, a gastronomic revolution is coming to College Hill. Soon, it will not just be the food that is past its shelf life, but on-campus meal plans too.

Ethan Tobias '12 is in no way being compensated by MunchCard for this column, but is on the plan and would very much like you to join him.




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