The cost of convenience: College meal plans

By Lola Murti

For college students that are balancing classes, part-time jobs, clubs and social obligations, finding time to prepare meals can feel overwhelming. A campus meal plan can take the burden of meal preparation off of students, but often comes at a significant cost — one that many students have trouble justifying.

The 2023 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS) results found that 23% of undergraduate students were food insecure. Access to grocery stores, time constraints and costs of both groceries and meal plans all play a factor. 

For students without the time or skills to cook, a college dining plan ensures that they’re able to get the food they need. Ella Randall Lee, a fourth-year public relations student at the University of Georgia, has been on the meal plan every semester of college except for one. Her disdain for cooking played a role in her decision.

“I am on a meal plan because I hate cooking. And my mom would tell me herself she doesn’t like to cook either, so she never really taught me how to cook. I swear I know like three meals that I can cook for myself,” Randall said.

She initially dropped her meal plan after moving off campus, but quickly realized that the money she was spending on eating out was not sustainable. 

“My bank account actually hit zero that one semester,” Randall said. “It was just kind of a moment where I was like ‘yeah, I am spending a lot of money on food.’ I don’t have the finances or the budget to go out for every single meal.”

According to a 2017 report from The Hechinger Report, the average cost of a meal plan for an academic year is $4,500, averaging $18.75 per day. Adjusted for inflation, the cost would be over $5,700 in 2023. Meal plan prices vary greatly across the country. Syracuse University meal plans can cost approximately $7,650 per year according to their website. For the 2023-2024 academic year at the University of Michigan, an unlimited meal plan is $5,440. Today, UGA’s seven-day all access plan is more affordable at $4,258 per year, and allows unlimited access to all five dining halls on campus. 

Still, some students may find grocery shopping for themselves to be more cost effective. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that in September 2023, the most frugal shoppers will spend between $247.10 and $302.80 per month on groceries for themselves. 

Scaling this to the academic year would have students spending between $2,471 and $3,028 for 10 months, which is significantly cheaper than a meal plan. But for many students, it still boils down to convenience. 

Clarice Henry, a first-year intended public relations student, started at UGA in July as a part of the Thrive | Georgia summer program for incoming first-year students. Thrive automatically places participants on the seven-day all access meal plan during the program. When Thrive ended and her first year began, Henry was unsure how she was going to continue to feed herself.

“Transitioning from Thrive to first year, like freshman year, I didn’t necessarily know if I was going to get a meal plan, so I was surviving off of like noodles and everything for like the first week,” said Henry. 

Shortly after moving in August, Henry was awarded the Crawford Scholarship through UGA, which renews annually and covers the cost of her meal plan. During the week before her meal plan started, she ate Cup Noodles, Capri Suns and fruit.

“If I didn’t get that scholarship, I more than likely wouldn’t be on a meal plan right now, let alone a seven day,” said Henry.

As a student without a car, having walkable access to meals was a priority for Henry. Like Randall, she also noted a lack of cooking experience, making a meal plan more viable.

Many universities have acknowledged the high food costs that students struggle to pay, and established programs to help. UGA created a food pantry for students in 2011, sponsored by the Panhellenic Council. More recently in 2014, the university launched a meal plan scholarship called ‘Let All The Big Dawgs Eat,’ which awards five-day and seven-day all access meal plans to students with demonstrated financial need. 

“To date, we’ve fed over 600 students on a meal plan thanks to the generosity of donors,” said Jan Barham, associate dean of students and director of the Tate Student Center, who also oversees the program.

When the scholarship was founded, one in 10 college students in the country faced food insecurity, according to Barham. At UGA, that number may be as high as one in five.

“They’re using their funds to pay for books. They have to pay for lab fees, they have to pay for somewhere to live,” said Barham. “The last thing they absolutely have to pay for is their food, and so it’s the first thing that goes.”

Barham said the ‘Let All The Big Dawgs Eat’ scholarship was the first of its kind at any university to fight food insecurity systematically through meal plans, as opposed to brick and mortar resources like the student pantry.

In the fall 2023 application cycle, 435 students applied and 115 received the scholarship. The program’s funding has grown immensely since starting with only two students, but financial limitations still leave many students without a meal plan. The program makes sure to provide resources to those they have to deny.

“When we do the ‘no’ email, there’s a list of resources. We connect them with [Student] Care and Outreach. We connect them to the financial hardship website,” said Barham. She also highlights employment opportunities at Dining Services, which include a free meal with each shift.

Barham said their research showed a positive impact on scholarship recipients’ financial stability, physical health and academic performance. 

We know that meal plans and being a part of one is more than just about the food. It’s about their physical wellbeing, it’s about their emotional wellbeing, their academic stability– food matters to bodies,” Barham said.

Proper meals are an essential part of student success that can be challenging to manage. With universities across the country taking a stance on meal affordability on their campuses, students no longer need to be limited to the stereotypical Cup Noodle diet.

Lola Murti is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

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