According to Wellesley policy, all students residing on campus are required to be on the meal plan; however, every year, a few exceptions are granted. Students can petition to opt out of the meal plan for a variety of reasons, including severe allergies, living at one of the student cooperatives or being a Davis Scholar. This year, a number of students living in the Wellesley Sustainability Cooperative (SCOOP) were unable to become exempt from the meal plan.
Fiona Lau ’19 was one such member of SCOOP. This is Lau’s first semester living in the sustainability cooperative and she assumed that getting off the meal plan would be a non-issue. Over the summer Lau was told to contact Residential Life about her decision regarding whether to stay on or become exempt from the meal plan, but due to some confusion over the deadline, she and a few fellow scoopies missed the opt-out date and were unable to petition for an extension. Lau believes this is because of the quota of people who are exempt from the meal plan. “If you add together all the residents from Homestead, Instead, French House and Davis scholars, the number exceeds the quota,” Lau stated. According to Residential Life, the quota for meal plan exemptions laid out in a contract with Dining Services is 22 exemptions, giving priority in the following order: Davis Scholars who reside in Cedar Lodge or Simpson West, French House residents, Homestead residents.
Unfortunately, this situation led to some SCOOP residents having to both pay for the meal plan and contribute to the communal food fee for SCOOP which Lau described as being difficult financially. But the strain Lau faces is not merely financial; she feels she is sometimes missing out on an essential part of living in SCOOP, breaking bread together, because “for those still on the meal plan we now feel obliged to go to the dining hall because that’s the food we are paying for as well.”
The offices that handle meal plan exemptions have huge variations in policy. Residential Life handles exemptions granted to students with non-typical living arrangements and are subject to a quota, maintain a strict deadline and keep a waiting list for eligible students. Disability Services, who handles exemptions for students with allergies or other health concerns, does not face any restrictions on the number of students they can give exemptions to and use a rolling deadline, but usually find other solutions work best for students with allergies. Out of the 27 students who had self-identified themselves to Disability Services as having a food allergy last year, only a handful pursued an exemption from the meal plan in the 2015-2016 school year. At any given time, roughly three to four students have meal plan exemptions due to dietary concerns.
Oftentimes, working with the campus dieticians and dining hall staff; paying heed to labelling and being cautious of what goes on their plate is enough for students with allergies and they choose to stay on the standard meal plan. Even the few who do have exemptions for allergies are not fully off the meal plan. Jim Wice, the director of Disability Services, stated that currently all the students with health related exemptions are on partial plans, usually 30 to 50 percent of the standard plan, which can allow those students to gather ingredients for meals they cook themselves, or supplement their own cooking with the foods in the dining hall that are safe for them to consume.
The process used by Disability Services is all too familiar for Anna Ehrlich ’18, who currently pays 30 percent of the meal plan fee. Ehrlich has a tree nut allergy and Oral Allergy Syndrome, and this compound of eating restrictions soon proved too much for the dining halls to completely accommodate. Ehrlich stated that eating in the dining halls can be dangerous for her for two major reasons: “incorrect labelling, especially for garnishes, many of which I am allergic to, and cross contamination.” Health concerns are not the only thing on Ehrlich’s mind while eating in the dining hall, as she keeps kosher. One instance of incorrect labelling last year resulted in Ehrlich ingesting pork. “I was really disappointed and frustrated. I felt physically sick because keeping kosher is so central to how I define myself,” she recalls. The process of Ehrlich getting off the meal plan lasted approximately three months and included providing letters from her family doctor and her rabbi; meeting with dining hall staff, dieticians, and Disability Services and finally being reviewed by the Meal Plan Accommodation Review Committee. With her current reduced meal plan, Ehrlich typically eats and gathers ingredients from the salad bar and but avoids the hot foods.
Opting out of the meal plan could be regarded as a financially savvy move considering the price tag is $7,442, but the current infrastructure of Wellesley College makes giving students this option unfeasible in the foreseeable future. For now, exemptions to the obligatory meal plan remain few and far in between.