A Call to Abolish the Compulsory Meal Plan – The Clerk

Haverford College policy dictates that nearly all students living on campus must subscribe to the full meal plan. Exceptions exist only for students who are able to secure designated meal-plan optional housing in the HCA, Ira De A. Reid House or 710 College Avenue. This policy is backwards, paternalistic and antithetical to the institution’s supposed values of student agency and equity. 

Under normal circumstances, the cost calculus for the meal plan is complicated, but if you consider the traditional unlimited meal plan – figure a 15 week semester, 20 meals a week – the cost per meal is $11.63. Granted, there are additional benefits of the meal plan; who isn’t familiar with a “second lunch”, a “pre-dinner” or swiping in just for coffee and a muffin? Regardless, I’d argue that there are equally as many missed meals with many going home for Thanksgiving, sleeping through breakfast or wanting to eat before 10 am on a Sunday. Additionally,  you can buy an individual breakfast or lunch at the Dining Center for $8.00 and $9.75 respectively.   So essentially, full-meal plan participants are overpaying for roughly ⅔ of their meals, with students who buy partial meal-plans getting a better deal at the 85-, 150-, 175- and 225- meal levels. The specific dollars and cents aside, it is indisputable that these dollars would go substantially further if spent at grocery stores while allowing students to tailor their diet to personal preferences.  In essence, buying a meal at the Dining Center involves paying for the variety, convenience and dietary accommodations. Students pay a premium for these benefits and if students living up-campus accept these terms, they will continue to purchase the meals they want. 

Necessitating access to a kitchen for meal plan exemptions is blatantly paternalistic and arbitrary. As a student body of adults, we are capable of determining how we obtain our meals. There are countless reasons why a student living up campus might not want to pay for every single meal in the Dining Center. Consider students who spend time at their family homes during the week. Is it fair for them to have to double-pay for meals they choose to eat with their family? What about students who may not have a medical need, but would like to be empowered to experiment with alternative or restrictive diets. While the Dining Center carefully accommodates its vegan/vegetarian and gluten/nut free students, it remains quite challenging to build a balanced diet of keto or paleo friendly foods.  Neither is it easy to feel comfortable with the provenance of many items that are not always grass-fed or organic. Additionally, what about students who follow a time-restricted eating regimen? For these students the three-meal a day plan is not applicable, and the financial loss of being on the full meal plan is further exacerbated. While the choices available at the Dining Center represent what is acceptable to most, there is no reason for students to be boxed into food choices that don’t meet their nutritional or ethical needs. 

The implication that having a kitchen is the only reason someone would not want to eat every meal in the Dining Center creates a false representation of students’ preferences. There are countless businesses in the immediate vicinity of Haverford that serve takeout meals for prices comparable to the Dining Center, and yet the enjoyment of this variety is limited to a certain group of students. The desire to order take-out and access to a kitchen are decidedly orthogonal, and yet with the policy as it stands, some students are empowered more than others to order out. More than that, ready to cook meals are plentiful at local grocery stores. All dorms are equipped with microwaves, and it is completely understandable that a student might prefer an inexpensive premade meal to an $11 trip to the Dining Center. Yet, as it stands, this is a privilege reserved for apartment dwellers. 

Fall 2020 will undoubtedly look very different than any other period in Haverford’s past. Prominent among many notable changes are those made to our Dining Center wherein President Raymond has made clear that all meals will be consumed alone. The Dining Center will operate at 30% capacity, arranged as if for a standardized test, with each individual table facing the same direction and 6 feet distant from one another. Gone are the days of wandering into the Dining Center and encountering lively discussion among friends, which used to further justify paying for the meal plan. 

Until recently, the Dining Center had the benefit of being an equalizer;nearly regardless of someone’s financial standing, it was possible to suggest meeting for a meal with little consideration for the implications of that choice. It was a comfort to walk to the Dining Center and be assured you’d find a table to join even if you didn’t have plans. With the new dining center restrictions, that is no longer a selling point. 

While the COVID situation brings to light an additional social consequence of the compulsory meal plan, restructuring the cost-structure of on-campus dining is a long overdue endeavor. Dining Center dues should not be subsidizing other aspects of campus life, nor is there any reason for the Dining Center to be propagated by coerced funds, as opposed to genuine demand on the part of the student body.  

My point in writing this piece is to highlight how Haverford’s compulsory meal plan for most of its students unfairly distributes latitude to those who have secured meal-plan-optional housing or are financially able to effectively ‘double pay’ for both their meal plan and the meals they choose to eat out.  During a time where collective awareness of inequity is increasing along with the pre-existing divide, we do not need college policy to contribute to a further polarization. There is truly no reason that living on-campus should come with the condition of paying for meals you may not want.  

I am sincerely grateful for the hard work of the Dining Center staff who are steadfast in their care and commitment to serving quality food.  None of this is intended as an indictment of their efforts, instead it is meant solely as a critical reflection on the cost structure and compulsive nature of the meal plan. Further, I understand that this proposition brings about logistical challenges to implementation. However, I feel strongly that this change is worth the labor and consideration that it takes. The COVID crisis brings about an opportunity for tactical restructuring that will allow for a more authentic re-alignment between students’ desire to purchase Dining Center meals and the amount which they are currently forced to. 

Frankly, amidst a radical reimagining of Haverford’s structures, I urge the administration to leave the compulsory meal plan as a relic of the past.  This artificial coupling of housing location and degree of choice surrounding meals is incongruent with the value of student agency that our institution espouses. In a similar vein, proponents of this compulsion citing the budgetary necessity of this pay structure stand in stark contrast with our claims of institutional flexibility and innovation. As an institution in the process of radical restructuring, we should take advantage of this opportunity and make this long-overdue change.