Wellesley meal plan, one of the most expensive among peer institutions

A student swipes into the Campus Center dining hall with her OneCard.

By SRAVANTI TEKUMALLA ’16

Wellesley students currently pay $6,418 per year for their meal plan, making it the most expensive meal plan when compared to Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston College, Boston University, Tufts University, Brandeis University and Barnard College. Although many Wellesley students defended the meal plan, expressing satisfaction with the variety, nutritional value and culture which the dining halls offer,  a recent poll conducted by the Wellesley News indicates that many are also unsatisfied with the cost.

Unlike other colleges and universities, Wellesley offers one unlimited meal plan, which students are required to purchase for all four years. Students who live in off-campus housing or a co-op, such as the Sustainability Co-op, may choose to opt out of the meal plan. In contrast, both MIT and Boston College use a “swipe” system and offer a variety of limited meal plans, allowing students to purchase between 14 and 19 meals per week in order to cut down on costs.

The meal plan at Boston College costs $4,818 per year, and MIT’s meal plans ranges from $2,575-$4,635 per year—both substantially less expensive than the Wellesley meal plan. Students at Boston College and MIT who do not normally eat all three meals may purchase the 14-meal-per-week plan, while students who eat three meals per day on weekdays and two meals on the weekend may opt for the 19-meal-per-week plan. Harvard also provides an unlimited meal plan similar to that of Wellesley, at $5,264 per year, over $1000 cheaper.

Assuming that students eat three meals a day and do not use the meal plan during Thanksgiving Break, Winter Break,Wintersession and Spring Break, the average cost of each meal at Wellesley is $11.25. According to a Wellesley News student poll  completed by 100 students on SurveyMonkey, 69 percent of Wellesley students felt this cost was either “unreasonable” or “very unreasonable.”

“Nobody eats food that’s worth that much,” Elizabeth McLoughlin ’14, a Balanced Health Educator (BHE), said. “Much of the eating occurs behind closed doors, because people buy their own cereal, granola and yogurt.”

“Because I don’t eat that much, I’d be better off having a three meal [a day] plan,” Houda Khaled ’16 said. “If I want to eat out, I’m still forced to pay for the meal I would have had in the dining hall.”

According to the survey, 40 percent of students were either “unsatisfied,”or “very unsatisfied,” with the overall cost of the meal plan. Fifteen percent of responses indicated that students were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the cost of the meal plan.

Despite students’ discontent with the cost of the meal plan, many were concerned that changing the meal plan would risk losing the distinct culture surrounding an unlimited dining hall plan.

“Cost-wise, yes, [more options] would be beneficial,” McLoughlin ’14 said. “But we pay $60,000 for school a year, so what’s $3000 more? It’s like a little fish in a big pond. Changing the meal plan would change our community. The dining halls provide an amazing place for community-building. If you don’t like something, you can just go to another dining hall and not worry about wasting your money.”

“I think it would be nice if students had a choice between a limited and unlimited plan, but I realize that would be hard to implement and carry out,” Lauren Steinman ’13, a BHE, said. “It’s one less thing to worry about when you’re at Wellesley and it makes me feel more at home. I like that I can walk into any dining hall without thinking of meal points, weekly point limits and other nuisances my friends deal with at other schools.”

In addition to the cited conveniences of unlimited dining, according to some officials, the standardized cost of the meal plan removes socioeconomic discrimination.

“To have one standardized meal plan and housing plan levels the playing field for the different socioeconomic classes that we have here,” Kris Niendorf, assistant dean of students and the director of residential life, said.

However, some students feel that the meal plan poses a greater burden for students who might otherwise choose a less expensive option.

“I feel that having a different option would actually level the playing field more, rather than having one option,” RiannaAylward ’16 stated. “The meal plan is pretty expensive, and I know I would go with a lower cost [if given the opportunity].”

Poll responses show that 60 percent of students support changing the dining hall system by closing a dining hall or switching to limited meals to reduce costs. However, 26 percent of polled students stated that they would “probably not” be open to such change.

Currently, students may discontinue the meal plan by choosing to live in a co-op or off-campus. Still, these students must pay $1100 per year to cover the overhead costs of the dining plan per student. Students who opt out of the meal plan are bound by the Honor Code to refrain from eating in the dining halls. However, there is no system in place to check whether students who enter the dining halls are on the meal plan .

Opting out of the meal plan can reduce living expenses for students. National studies indicate that the average cost of a meal for a college-aged female is less than the price students pay at Wellesley. According to the official USDA Food Plans Cost of Food at Home, the average cost of food for a female age 19-50 is approximately $400 a month, including $80 for eating out, and assuming that the consumer shops at local high-end grocery stores, such as Roche Brothers or Whole Foods. Excluding breaks and assuming that students eat three meals per day, this means the average cost per meal for a student who opts out of the Wellesley meal plan is approximately $7.20, about 60 percent of the cost of the current meal plan.

Despite the cost savings for upperclasswomen to opt out of the meal plan, many were skeptical that students would choose to discontinue their access to dining hall food.

“If I had to cook for myself, it’d be less nutritious,” Mano said.

“Let’s be serious,” McLoughlin said. “Most people here are too stressed to make their own meals, and there’s no time to cook for yourself.”

Although the majority of students in the recent poll expressed discontent with the cost of the meal plan, most agreed that Wellesley tends to provide nutritional food to its students.

“They definitely make an effort to have fruits like apples, pears, oranges and salads. And they try to have cucumbers and tomatoes,”McLoughlin said.

“I definitely think they provide a wide range of foods that can easily be combined into a balanced meal,” Steinman ’13 stated. “I believe it’s on the students to educate themselves about what comprises a healthy meal and to fill their plates accordingly. Every dining hall has a salad bar, there is always at least one vegetable option, and choices don’t seem too limited.”

Health professionals are also satisfied with the culinary variety and nutrition of Wellesley’s dining halls.

“The dining halls provide a variety of meat, proteins and starches at every meal, [in addition to] veggies, fruit and soy milk,” Amy Branham, a dietician at Wellesley, said. “There are whole grains offered regularly, and we have our Fresh Initiatives. The dining halls make their homemade pizza dough, salad dressings, marinara and peanut butter. We have fresh roasted turkey and beef, whole grains from the bakery, and we are a zero trans-fat dining facility.”

The Fresh Initiative, which brings in freshly made food instead of processed food, has most recently provided fresh apples from local farms in dining halls across campus.

In addition to providing nutritious meals, students generally feel that the College provides access to options for those with dietary restrictions, such as vegetarian, vegan and nut-sensitive students. Vanessa Britto, the director of Health Services, noted that the dining halls are reactive to the changing nature of student diets.

“The variety is vast here, and dining services is very responsive to what’s been changing for students,” Britto said. “When people were starting to have issues with gluten in the past five years, the dining halls revamped their options. Now, not only is there a variety, but it is also a given that there are gluten-free options,”

“Labeling has really improved and now, one glance at the menu will tell you exactly what allergens, additives or animal products your meal contains,” Steinman said.

The dining halls are in the process of developing a new allergen program with labeling. Current labels being used for allergens are “dairy-free,” “contains nuts” and “gluten sensitive.”

Even with access to balanced meals, students admit that they sometimes do not eat nutritiously, especially when faced with the pressures and stresses of school. Although the dining halls provide nutritious options, they also provide many unhealthy choices, including a variety of desserts and an assortment of pizza in nearly every dining hall. With these unhealthy options alongside the healthy ones, students often incorporate pizza or fries into their daily diet.

“People go for carbs, because people need energy to sustain themselves longer,” McLoughlin ’14 said. “The options are very carb-heavy and salty. They help you feel good at first, but it doesn’t help immunity. As it is, students don’t sleep enough.”

Britto agreed that stress is a common among students and can often affect their diets.

“Stress affects people in different ways,” she said. “Some are emotional eaters; when they’re happy, they eat, and when they’re sad, they eat. But this happens everywhere.”

“The dining halls meet a lot of dietary needs; it’s the student choices that are not healthy,” Niendorf said. “There’s ice cream in every hall, but it’s your choice to eat it.”

Branham said, “We’re looking to feature more local produce, and we try to keep up with local food trends. Everything is scratch cooking. They cut, chop, and prepare everything. We don’t cook in big batches, and we present it in restaurant style to make it fresh.”

Jordan encouraged students who are interested in making a difference in the dining hall system to join DSAB, the Dining Service Advisory Board. For students who would like to improve their diet, the College offers a variety of healthy-eating resources including the Balanced Health Educators (BHEs) and Wellesley Fresh dieticians. On-campus health experts offer students their advice for maintaining a nutritious diet.

“The age of 25 is the peak in bone density for women, so we encourage students to eat adequate amounts of vitamin D and calcium,” Britto said. “We also encourage all folks to be getting adequate amounts of iron. Building good eating habits is key during this time.”

“Just go over healthy eating options,” Branham advised. “Take a walk through the dining hall before picking something up. Experiment and try new combinations or new dining halls.”

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