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The Case for Meal Plan Flexibility for First-Years

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By Katie Hughes ’22 and Hannah Amendola ’24

All first-year students who live on Haverford’s campus must buy into the full meal plan. This costs $3,490 per semester, includes 6 guest passes and $50 in dining dollars. It also entitles students to one meal per dining period throughout the semester. The meal plan is compulsory throughout a student’s remaining tenure at the College, unless they move into one of the few meal plan–exempt housing options (the Haverford College Apartments, select houses) or off-campus. The ability to opt out of the meal plan is predicated on a student’s access to a kitchen. 

Haverford’s dining policy is teeming with inconsistent structures. These include meal plans which are more costly, on a per-meal basis, than buying the same meals à la carte (1). Not only that, but the cost per meal is determined more by a person’s relationship to the college than by the actual meal consumed. Faculty and staff pay considerably less for meal plans (2). This represents a bizarre departure from typical cost structures for food which vary by the value of the good and not by the employment or student status of the person consuming it.

Suffice it to say, among many peculiarities, one stands out: Living in an apartment grants students in every other class year the ability to opt out of the meal plan, while first-years living in the Apartments do not have this opportunity. 

We can imagine two possible justifications for this. One involves equity between first-years and the other speaks to the social benefits of eating in the dining center. To address the equity justification: incoming first-year students get housing assigned to them, while students in later class years have a say in their housing location through the room draw process. Given this fact, it could seem unfair to offer some first-years latitude over their food choices, and not others. Our response to this: allow all students, regardless of housing location, the option to opt out of the meal plan. The reality is that separate from access to a full kitchen or the Dining Center, students have many viable options for meals, and thus should not be obligated to pay for three meals daily at the Dining Center.

The next possible explanation for all first-years being on the meal plan is social in nature. Living down campus can be isolating, so the obligation to go up campus to eat can provide meaningful social interaction for students getting acclimated to campus. Furthermore, hall meals feature prominently in many Customs teams, and the meal plan ensures that all first-years can fully participate in that without financial concern.

This socialization argument, however, falls flat in the face of a take-out only, COVID-safe dining center. No longer featuring the joyous communal experience of meeting friends for dinner or bumping into someone you haven’t seen in awhile, getting a meal at the DC is now a sterile and lonely endeavor: grabbing a to-go meal and moving on. As a result, it is highly unlikely that first-year students will make real friends or have meaningful social interactions because of the meal plan.

In a normal year, first-years in the Apartments are already less likely to make the trip to the Dining Center when they could go grab a quick, and possibly cheaper, meal from a nearby restaurant or cook in their kitchens. In a pandemic, though, they are going to make the trip even less often. For instance, consider a first year who, in the absence of COVID-19, would be forced to walk from the Apartments to the main campus for a class in Stokes. Despite not being an avid breakfast eater, this first-year may decide that it would only take an extra second to stop quickly at the DC on their way to class and grab something to eat.

In the age of COVID-19, this same first-year is almost never going to use their breakfast meal swipe. No longer forced to get dressed up and leave their rooms for in-person class, the student will likely choose to wait for lunch or to eat a quick snack that they might have in their room or their kitchen. In doing so, they can sleep much later and avoid a trip outside in the cold winter months.

This hypothetical first-year is paying anywhere from eight to twelve dollars every day for a meal that they don’t eat. By forcing this student to buy the full meal plan, the college is not only robbing the student of money daily, but is also encouraging them to eat little-to-no breakfast. They may think to themselves, “Since I’m already paying for breakfast at the DC, I shouldn’t pay for groceries to eat in my room, so I guess I just won’t eat breakfast.”

Yet this skipping of meals is exactly what the college claims they are preventing in requiring first-years to purchase the full meal plan. If this is truly their goal, they should consider this hypothetical first-year, who likely represents a large quantity of Haverford’s first-year residents, not exclusively those living in the Apartments. In the process of doing so, they will certainly see that they are going about achieving their goal in the wrong way.

Just like classes, social life, and off-campus travel have been reimagined for the COVID-19 era, it is important that the meal plan follow suit. Especially in a time that is financially fragile for an even greater number of Haverford students, the college should be careful about the money that they require them to spend, especially if much of it may end up going to waste. For these reasons, we encourage the administration to both retroactively and going forward allow all students, especially first-years living in the Apartments, to adjust their meal plans to better reflect their personal dining preferences. 


  1. Considering a 15-week semester, 20 meals a week – the cost per meal on the meal plan is $11.63. So a Monday’s worth of meals would cost $34.90. In contrast, buying breakfast, lunch and dinner à la carte using Campus Cash would cost only $30.50. While this looks like just a few dollars, this additional expense incurred per day adds up over the course of a semester. It is remarkably unconventional for a consumer to be penalized for ‘buying in bulk’ in the way that the Haverford meal plan does. It is beneficial for the Dining Center to have the guaranteed income that comes with the purchase of meal plans at the beginning of the semester, and allows them a greater ability to anticipate how much food to prepare. Students who buy meal plans, though, are then relinquishing some of their freedom for dining decisions – as such the price should incentivize this decision, not punish students.
  1. A 25-meal declining balance costs students $318, while a 25-meal lunch plan costs staff only $175. Technically, a student could spend their 25 meal swipes on dinners. In this case, this would cost ($12.75 * 25 = $318.75) to buy these meals à la carte, saving the student a whopping $0.75 when they commit to buying at least 25 swipes. That’s to say a student pays $12.75 per meal on the 25-swipe meal plan, where for a professor to buy 25 lunches, they would pay ($175 / 25 = $7 per meal). Alternatively a 15-swipe meal plan for staff or faculty costs only $135, which would equal $9 per meal – still considerably less than the $12.75 students are forced to pay.

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