The Advance-Titan

Students use 46% of their meals on average

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UW Oshkosh students, as a whole, used less than half of the meals they paid for in the 15- and 21-meal plans during the 2015-2016 academic year.

The average student with a re-cycling meal plan pays $1,461.50 a semester for their meal plan, which means the average student has almost $750 that goes to waste in food they don’t eat, although university officials say the meal plan pricing is beneficial to students.

The meal plan on campus has long been criticized by students because of the food quality and cost of the plan, while student officials say the meal plan is better than the reputation that precedes it, and that students have plenty of opportunities to make the most of their meal plan.

Of the 1.26 million re-cycling meal plan meals available to students on campus last year, only 46 percent were used.

The re-cycling meal plan is the most common meal plan for students at UWO and has a certain amount of meals students can use a week. Once that week is over, it resets to the original amount, whether it be 15 or 21.

UWO students pay $1,405 per semester for the 15 weekly meals plan and $1,518 for the 21 weekly meals plan. Of these amounts, $237 goes to the university for the 15-meal plan and $303 for the 21-meal plan. Subtracting the Titan dollars from each plan, the rest of the money goes to Sodexo. For the 2016 fall semester the campus made $536,229 in revenue from the re-cycling meal plans.

All of that isn’t spent each semester, however. State policy requires that all money made from dining services has to go directly back into dining services.

Reeve Memorial Union Director Randy Hedge said there is a reserve set aside to pay for things such as capital investments and currently has $881,965 in it.

“For dining, the minimum allowable [amount in the reserve] is $365,000; the maximum allowable is $2.3 million,” Hedge said.

Hedge said the allowable amounts varies from year to year, based on what renovations or plans are coming up that need to be paid for.

“It changes year to year based on what you’re saving money for,” Hedge said.

A majority of the price of each meal plan goes to Sodexo, receiving 77 percent and 74 percent of the 15 and 21 meal plan revenue, respectively.

According to Hedge, students get a good deal if they eat all their meals in a week and meal plans are similar to a gym membership.

“You can choose to use it or not,” Hedge said. “The students that choose to use all their meals get a great deal. The students that choose to eat less than half, maybe not so much.”

Hedge said each campus has different variables that go into their participation, like UW-Eau Claire for example having their dining hall at the top of big hill.

“I think it is important to note that variability in participation on plans is dependent on several factors,” Hedge said, “Including: hours of operation, convenience of location, quality and variety of food served, customer service and other dining options on-and off-campus that students have.”

Students who don’t use their meal plans could actually be doing the students who do a favor. Hedge said Sodexo bids on the amount of meals they know students will usually eat, the 46 percent, and that if everyone used their meals, the price would go way up.

“Because we know that students on the 15 and 21, on the average, eat about half of their meals, the price of the meal plan can come down per meal,” Hedge said.

But what happens if Sodexo predicts wrong and students eat more than the expected 46 percent?

“What it does is it increases [Sodexo’s] costs if there’s more students eating,” Hedge said. “So if there is 50 percent versus 46 percent of the meals used, then it increases their cost. It increases the cost of the contractor to provide that meal service.”

On the flip side, Hedge said if Sodexo incorrectly predicts the amount students will eat to the high end, it ends up as more profit for Sodexo.

“Sodexo would make more if their expenses are less and participation is low,” Hedge said. “Because the revenues stay the same.”

Hedge said depending on the meal, it might be a better choice to pay for a meal in cash since meals like breakfast cost less to provide. According to Hedge, the cash breakfast price in Blackhawk Commons is $4.85.

“If you use a meal swipe at breakfast, you might be just better off paying the cash rate,” Hedge said.

Accessibility was one of the main issues students had with their meal plan and helps explain why students don’t use all of their meal.

Senior William Wasielewski said he does not like the meal plan in general, especially the limiting meal time aspect.

“I would rather, instead of getting 15 a week [to use in the time frames], it was 15 for each week total,” Wasielewski said.

Wasielewski said he thinks the students not using their meals is a campus problem.

“Just cause from week to week a student’s schedule can be so varied by what they’re involved in that they just don’t have time every week to use every meal,” Wasielewski said. “But some weeks they could use more meals but don’t have them.”

Hedge said time restraints on meals have been industry standard for a while now and are easier on the contractor.

“Just the architecture of it makes it so that the contractor can count on knowing, on the average, how many meals are going to be used during that time versus students being able to come back several times during a meal period,” Hedge said.

What Wasielewski is looking for is something called an all-access meal plan, which Hedge said UWO had about eight years ago.
“What we found at that time was that students didn’t eat any more on the all-access plan than they did on the 21 [meal plan],” Hedge said.

All-access plans are in place at some campuses and are meal plans that allow students to eat however much they want. They can visit the food vendors anytime, as many times as they want.

Hedge said an all-access plan would take all the barriers away from the meal plan, and the campus looked it over with Oshkosh Student Association.

“What we found was, at this time, it would cost students more to have the all-access plan, significantly more, probably about 10 to 15 percent more for the cost of the meal plan,” Hedge said.

Hedge said OSA and the campus agreed that it was not the right time to implement a new plan because they are in the middle of a contract with Sodexo, and that when bidding comes around it gets a lot more competitive, resulting in lower prices.

“We could put an all-access plan out there and ask for bids and guess what, you go out to bid then it’s competitive,” Hedge said. “Right now we’re just dealing with Sodexo. When we go out to bid, we’re going to get several players that are going to come in and say this is the rate we’ll give you.”

OSA President Austyn Boothe had no comment about this issue.

Looking into whether the meal plan is a good deal if used like Hedge said it is, he is right. A meal swipe is worth $6.50, multiplied by 15 meals a week, multiplied by 17 weeks equals $1,657.50, over $250 more than what students pay for.

The catch, however, is that students living on campus are required to have a meal plan, according to a UW System requirement, but freshmen can’t choose the ultimate plan. The ultimate plan for students is meal plan that gives them a lot of Titan dollars to purchase food from campus stores, but also has a certain amount of meal swipes to use as well. The main difference between the ultimate plan and the re-cycling meal plan is that students on the ultimate plan aren’t as tied up by the time constraints like the students who have the re-cycling plans are.

Sophomore and nursing major Vanessa Frahm said she doesn’t even use the meal plan on campus.

“I actually don’t even really eat the food on campus, so I just chose the cheapest meal plan because they make you choose one if you live in the dorms,” Frahm said. “Then I usually just go to the supermarket and buy my own food. I mean on campus once in a while, but not too often.”

Hedge said the campus is thinking about instituting a charge that would be less than the price of the meal plan if the students didn’t want to eat the campus food.

“Students see the price, and they don’t understand that a good portion of it, like 30 percent of the cost, goes to pay for the building,” Hedge said. “[It] goes to pay for equipment and the staff that has to be in place to run the meal plans. So maybe what we need to do is say ‘here’s the cost of the meal plan, and here’s the cost of the overhead.’”

Hedge said the campus could not afford the meal service facility, the equipment and all the support services that are required to run a dining program without the meal plans.

“You couldn’t afford to build your kitchen and dining room in your house if you didn’t have a certain amount of money come out your personal budget that it was going towards that,” Hedge said. “We have to have a certain amount of the budget going to support a facility like [Blackhawk] Commons in order to offer that to students. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to serve our students adequately.”

Student Dillon Fuhrman said Reeve Memorial Union’s role in the meal plan is both his most and least favorite part.

“My most favorite part is [the meal plan] can transfer over on weekends [to Reeve,]” Fuhrman said. “My least favorite part about it is you can’t come here on weekdays, cause you’ll have to use bonus meals or Titan dollars and not the normal meal plan.”

Hedge said they need Blackhawk Commons as the main meal plan service because of the size of it.

“During the week we have more students here and so we need a larger food service facility, and Blackhawk is that,” Hedge said. “I mean we can get 800 students in there at a time. So Blackhawk is the place we really need to run.”

According to Hedge, it’s both Sodexo’s and the University’s decision to put Reeve food in the Blackhawk Commons.

“When we put together our contract, we’re looking for two different types of meals,” Hedge said. “We’re looking for retail service that is more grab-and-go in our retail areas, because students want that. They’re in between classes. They’re grabbing things, putting them in their backpack. So the percentage of the people that sit down and eat at table in [Reeve] Marketplace is far less than the number of meals we serve.”

Junior Amanda Reyes said the food students are served at Blackhawk is not the best, but it isn’t the worst either.

“It’s OK; it’s not like mom and dad’s home cooking,” Reyes said. “It could be worse; we could be having pretty cruddy cafeteria food from high school.”

Sophomore Hannah Weber said she feels the meal plan was a waste of money.

“I never used all of it,” Weber said. “Yeah, I’d get sick [of the food] too, but even without that you’d not use them all cause you’d get sick of it and wouldn’t want to go there.”

Sophomore Morgan Van Lanen said she enjoys using the block meal plan over the re-cycling meal plan because students’ main option for the block meal plan is Reeve Marketplace, instead of Blackhawk.

“I get sick when I eat Blackhawk so I didn’t really use my [re-cycling] meal plan; I ate all my meals in my room,” Van Lanen said. “So it was really a waste of money for me.”

According to a document received from Hedge, the block meal plan has a usage rate of almost 98 percent, with 191,948 meals being used of the 196,240, 52 percent higher than the re-cycling meal plans.

Hedge said the usage rate for the block meal plan is so much higher because students calculate what they’re going to use.

“Students on the block meal plan get emails that say at this point in the semester you should be using this many of your block plan in order to use them all by the end of the semester,” Hedge said. “Then we always advertise at the end of the semester too, if you want to get the full value of your meal plan on a block plan, now’s the time the use them cause if you don’t, they go away.”

Hedge said he is very passionate about the food service and is trying to keep it interesting for UWO students.

“We want to make sure [Sodexo] has a good balance in their business, but we want to make sure the students are satisfied,” Hedge said. “Sodexo does too. We all want to make sure you all are satisfied with your meal plan, and you have access to eat what you need to eat.”

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Independent Student Newspaper of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Students use 46% of their meals on average